11.24.10 - 12.1.10 90 °F
We were abruptly woken up around 8 am on a pleasant overnight train ride from Thailand to get out and go through the Malaysian border crossing. While in line to get our passports stamped there was a notice about hippies and how they may not be welcomed into Malaysia. It was a bullet format that essentially said "if you appear to have unclean hair, poor hygiene, baggy pants with possibly no undergarments, sandals/inappropriate shoes, or in any way appear to be a hippie, the Malaysian border control reserves the right to deny you entry." Yikes right? That description matches about 85 percent of our fellow backpackers and usually us too! We happen to look moderately clean this day and had ditched our colorful "hippie pants" from India long before so luckily, we made the cut. It makes we wonder how many people get stopped/harassed for looking like a cliche Southeast Asia traveler and what happens if they cannot cross.
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia around 10 pm on the 24th. Melanie's former coworker from Saturna was transferred from the Bellingham office to work at the KL branch for two years. Bryce, his wife KJ and their darling 3 year old Oscar were nice enough to let us stay with them over the next four nights. We had aimed to be in KL for Thanksgiving so we could be in a home and spend the holiday with other Americans. Bryce is quite the cook and got pretty creative whipping up some delicious dishes that fused his Thanksgiving favorites with all the fun, new Asian ingredients he now has access to. We also had a turkey prepared by a nearby hotel that came with lots of surprise sides such as stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts and cranberry sauce. Needless to say, we had enough servings for thirds and leftovers the next day! Our contribution to the feast was a mango crisp that turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. Melanie and I decided to double the topping portion which turned out to be a genius idea as the mountain of crunchy, brown-sugary oats went perfectly with the fresh mango flave! Swhite commented on how fun it was to have such a classic holiday scene as Bryce took breaks from cooking to play the piano, Oscar was running around giggling and we all struggled to carve the turkey, a task that eventually defaulted to me, the lone vegetarian.
Did i mention they live on the 18th floor of a swanky condo building and have an incredible view of the city including the Patronas Towers? Well it was amazing and something we definitely didn't get tired of seeing.
Day two in KL was craft day! Lucky for us, KJ is an artist and knew about a craft complex within walking distance where we could try our hand at some Batik painting. Batik is a popular style around Asia that is usually done on silk. Our paintings started with a pencil stencil (rhyme!), followed by a carefully done layer of hot wax over the design. The instrument used to trace with wax looks kind of like an old school calligraphy pen with a little copper scoop and narrow funnel to guide the wax out neatly. We could handle the tracing but after hearing an "ooops" from Melanie as she tried the wax, Swhite and I opted for the pros to help us out. Once the wax is on the silk, we got to paint with water color type paints. It was great because the wax acts like a boundary between spaces so you have to try pretty hard to get the colors you don't want outside the lines. We spent about four hours at this place and all ended up pretty happy with our pieces.
The next day was spent on a five hour walking tour of the city with Bryce, KJ and Oscar. They showed us Chinatown, a beautiful park and some really neat neighborhoods with vastly different architecture styles. There are modern looking skyscrapers, a space needle wannabe tower, and colonial looking government buildings all in view of each other. The architecture seems to be a pretty accurate representation of the culture as well. The interesting fusion of people, languages, cuisines and clothing styles follows along the same lines. Malaysia is a primarily Muslim country. Considering that Muslim societies are known for having a male dominated culture, it was interesting to observe the Muslim women in Malaysia. I sort of assumed the submissive, sheltered role of women would be the same. It turns out that is so untrue! Muslim women in Malaysia still wear head scarves and dress modestly, BUT they are sassy, hold high profile finance and business positions around the city, have active social lives and they do aerobics in the park to hip music while wearing their colorful head scarves! We found out from KJ that many of the Muslim women have jobs and nannies and are not at all restricted to housework and looking after their children. What an incredible difference to the stifled lives of so many of the women in India. I can only hope progress will be made for them as well.
With funds tight near the end of the trip we had to choose carefully what tourist activity we wanted to do. KJ's mom had just visited and she recommended we go to Firefly Park, an hour and a half away in Kuala Selangor. Our cab driver was new and hadn't been to Firefly Park so we bought him a ticket so he could come see them too. There were about 8 of us in a quiet little boat that took a half hour ride along the river where thousands of fireflies were hanging out in the trees. It was so sparkly and beautiful I was amazed! At first it seemed unreal, like there were way too many and it must be some kind of trick with lights or something. But as our boat guy steered us right into the branches of one of the trees, Swhite caught one and we verified that they were in fact real! Apparently around 7:30-8:30 pm these fireflies are blinking bright as a means to attract their mate and once they find them, they stop glowing. We arrived at the perfect time and it was stunning. Melanie was saying how cool it must have been for the person who first discovered this collection of fireflies and what a treat that probably was!
We left Malaysia to head to Singapore on Sunday the 28th. At the bus stop Swhite and i were on a mission to spend ever last bit of our Ringett on snacks for the bus while Melanie waited with the bags. When we came back to relieve her of bag duty she was surrounded by a pack of 5 hyper little children! Melanie went to the bathroom and they immediately starting asking, "where's Melanie?" apparently they got to be pretty good friends while we were gone. The kids were darling and couldn't get enough of using their favorite English phrases on us and asking rapid fire questions. We heard "I think you are sooooo nice!" many times along with "I want to marry you" from the boy in kindergarten who was being fed lines by his older cousin. I asked them if they could sing in English too and they immediately burst into a chorus of "Twinkle, Twinkle" and "Ring Around the Rosie" when they forgot a word they looked kind looked at each other then added an obviously made up word or maybe a word in another language without skipping a beat. These little cuties were a great send off for sure!
Knowing Singapore is an expensive city, we planned ahead and set up a Couch Surfing contact to save on accommodation. We stayed with four young finance professionals who lived right on line with the slick train system and were grateful for their hospitality. Unfortunately, since we arrived late on a Sunday night and left early on Wednesday morning, we barely got to spend any time with our hardworking hosts. The four guys had met at university in Singapore and all happened to be from India. They told us there was a grant that paid for all of their schooling if they agreed to work in Singapore for three years after graduation. Apparently people in Singapore are working too hard and not having children until much later in life which has resulted in huge economic growth, without enough people to sustain it. Therefore the government offers this grant that requires the graduates work for at least three years with the hope that they will choose to stay permanently. Two of them were studying for their CFA exams the following week, one had to report to the office at seven AM but was always on call and the fourth was busy during the day but was able to chat with us a bit before bed time. However, they were extremely kind and helpful in giving suggestions for what we should do/see around the city.
The weather didn't agree with us for long either of our two sight seeing days in the city which made for a rather limited experience. There are lots of touristy things to do in Singapore they just happen to be extremely expensive and way out of our price range (like a $20 cocktail or a $25 Christmas light bus tour). We have adapted 100% to a "traveler's budget" and local currencies making it pretty difficult to justify such purchases even if we would have been willing to shell out the money back home. However, since we needed to fly out of Singapore anyway we decided we might as well see what we could just by walking around. Over the next two days we walked around Little India which was fun to be able to name the sweets we came to love so much while traveling there. We also ventured to Chinatown and I got gusty ordering a spicy soup called Lahksa and had to pick 7 of about 30 choices to add to my soup of which i was probably able to recognize three. Like KL, the architecture in Singapore is also very unique and varied. There is neat stretch of colorful buildings along the river framed by sky scrapers and other standard, metallicy high rises.
When the rain would come (as it did often), we sought refuge in one of the many fancy malls that we could access via the underground train stations. The network of tunnels down there was impressive and Melanie commented on how we could probably get pretty far without needing to come up to the ground level at all. For as much time as we spent in the malls, we didn't spend one penny on anything besides food and movie tickets. Our hosts tipped us off that the basement level food courts were cheap and had a huge selection which we took full advantage of. My fave was a tomato pizza with sesame crust and a hint of cream cheese. Melanie and Swhite got pretty into the bubble tea. We also discovered that movie tickets were only about $5 so we saw a movie each night too. Yes it's lame to be in a foreign country and spend time in a mall, but in our defense, the Christmas decorations really were beautiful!