KL, Cameron Highlands, Penang & Langkawi- Malaysia
Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
10Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Couch surfing at Sree's place
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was where we had our first official couchsurfing experience. For those unfamiliar with the Couchsurfing.com network, it is an online service that helps connect the worldwide community of travelers to local residents in a particular country, or even other travelers that are local at the moment but come from various countries. Everyone involved is interested in meeting each other to experience a true cultural exchange. Both "surfers" and "hosts" must post pictures and a profile about themselves online where others then can post their review regarding their interactions with that person on their profile. Many "hosts" welcome traveling "surfers" by opening up their homes and offer their "couch" to host travelers (a "couch" may truly just be a couch or surface area to sleep on, or it could even be a private room with a bathroom). Some local couchsurfers may have no space available to host in their house, but still want to engage in the couchsurfing community and are happy to meet up for "coffee" (or various other meet-up situations), or just show a surfer around their town. So when Keith and I were reviewing potential hosts' profiles to determine whose "couch" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia would be the best fit for us, we felt confident when we selected our first host seeing that he had pages upon pages of multiple positive reviews from people whom he had hosted. (And thank goodness he gave us a chance to surf at his place considering we are fairly new to couchsurfing, and at the time had only a couple of reviews from friends who just so happened to also be on couchsurfing.)
After we woke from our airport slumber party, we started on our journey to our Malaysian host's house with the intention that we would arrive at his apartment at an hour more decent than our 3 am airport arrival. So after a couple of transfers, and a useless taxi cab ride, we finally arrived at our gracious couchsurfing host Sree's skyrise apartment. Sree's bachelor pad boasted a beautiful view from the balcony overlooking Bukhit Jalil park, in the Kuala Lumpur district about a 30 minutes train ride south of downtown. (Bukhit Jalil Park is a great place to get some exercise, and also observe hundreds of huge catfish and turtles hanging out underneath the bridges waiting for some fish food.)
Our first night there, Sree introduced us to his favorite local eatery where we got our first taste of local naan bread with dipping sauces and tea tarik or "pulled tea" that became my personal favorite. This place even had hookah with many different flavors to choose from. (Hey, we didn't want to risk insulting our host so "had" to have some hookah! Plus you know that saying "when in Rome..."- this can be applied worldwide.)
We then walked a good portion of downtown Kuala Lumpur, seeing Merdeka Square and its surrounding historic buildings.
Later Keith and I went on to see the Islamic Arts Museum, where the guard at the entrance asked if we were students, and I replied "yes, but of course...right now we are students of Malaysia." Which earned some brownie points with the man at the ticket booth, who then generously let Keith and I both in at the student ticket rate. This museum was a great educational stop, and we were particularly impressed with the incredibly detailed replicas of various famous mosques around the world, including the Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Alhambra Mosque in Granada, Spain.
Just as people always associate NYC as being this great melting pot of culture and civilization, this is definitely true of Malaysia. You can see influences coming from China, India, Malays, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians. There is something for everyone to see and experience in Kuala Lumpur.
Another day we got out to see the impressive Twin Petronas Towers of Malaysia, and the KL tower, all located in the Golden Triangle area (read: the $$$ area).
While we stayed at Sree's, another Couchsurfer friend of his from Germany named Toby showed up. Toby was a repeat surfer with Sree, having been to Malaysia many times. Toby was just about the happiest person we have ever met. He punctuates all of his sentences with a contagious laugh that made him great to hang out with. The first night he was there he showed us his professional quality pictures he took of past travels to Kuala Lumpur on his laptop. This resulted in two outcomes: 1) Keith and I decided to stay in Kuala Lumpur an extra day so we could go with Toby to the Batu Caves and 2) that Toby's Canon G10 Camera takes amazing pictures AND our camera is on its way out....so hmmm...1 + 1 = new camera purchase in Malaysia.
The next day Toby introduced us to our first roti with egg (thin Indian bread kind of like a soft tortilla) with a spicy dipping sauce. Delicious roti with egg became another Malaysian favorite for me. Keith, Toby and I then bussed to Batu Caves, the largest Hindu temple outside of India, just a several miles north of Kuala Lumpur.
After several days, we said our goodbyes to Sree, Toby, and Kuala Lumpur, and we were onto our next stop....Cameron Highlands. We took a bus on a very very windy road to the Cameron Highlands which are located half-way up the Malaysia peninsula in the mountains. Because the Highlands were at a higher altitude, for the first time in a month and a half, we weren't sweating profusely just by simply breathing. Even for me (the person who is always freezing in the middle of a desert heat wave) the cooler air was a welcome change! We stayed at a fun backpackers haven called Dan's Lodge where we met a lot of interesting travelers from all over the globe.
In Cameron Highlands Keith and I finally gave into the temptation of trying the famous Malaysian foot reflexology. There are tons of these shops EVERYWHERE. Malaysian foot reflexology shops are like the Starbucks of Malaysia...you can find one on every corner. We had to see what all the hype was about, plus we bargained with the lady and got her down to 10 Ringgits ($5 US) each for each of us to get a half hour treatment (which we determined was within our budget LOL).
A couple of days later, we hopped back on a bus traveling on another very very windy road and then over a bridge to the city of Georgetown on the island of Penang, off the upper west coast of peninsular Malaysia. We stayed at Old Penang Guesthouse, located on Love Lane (insert AWWWW sound here....or gagging sound may apply too.) Old Penang proved to be one of the nicer hostels we have stayed in to date (read: HOT shower water again!), although halfway through our time in Penang we unfortunately had to move down the street because Old Penang ran out of rooms.
We found it interesting that whenever people heard we were traveling to Penang they ALWAYS said the SAME thing "oh the food there is soooo AMAZING!" Well, I'm not sure what restaurants they were going to, but we thought the food there had its edible hits and misses- just like every other place we had been.
In Penang we saw the very impressive Pinang Peranakan Mansion, or as our enthusiastic tour guide kept on repeating "The shack owned by the Chinese-Malay-Godfather-Mafia-Boss-Tycoon."
While in Penang we were able to connect with many different couchsurfers. One night we met up with a weekly couchsurfing gathering at the wharf. It was here that we met Ang, Bhagwan, Carolyn, Stephen, and several others. We soon discovered that Stephen was practically our neighbor in Silicon Valley and travels to Malaysia for work, and Carolyn was from NY. (But interestingly enough, we've noticed that we are NOT running into many Americans traveling here....it has been almost entirely European, Australian, and Canadian backpackers) Another couchsurfer we met named Ang is a very high energy local that was full of information on what to see and do, and helped us make a plan for later in the week to volunteer at the handicap house where he regularly helps out. We also decided to meet with Ang the next evening behind the Emperor's Temple to get backstage to see the Chinese opera actors getting ready for their performance.
The next day Keith and I bused over to see the Kek Lok Si Temple, next to Penang Hill.
That night we made our way to the Emperors Temple and looked for Ang backstage. Ang wound up not being able to meet us, but the actors invited us backstage to watch them don their elaborate costumes, make-up, wigs, and hats and transform into characters that looked like they stepped out of a Chinese cartoon.
Bhagwan picked us up the next morning, and on our way to the Sikh Temple he handed Keith and I each a cloth to place over our heads to cover our hair, to demonstrate respect when entering the temple. The temple breakfast and lunch is open to anyone who wishes to attend, regardless of religious beliefs. They served us incredibly delicious browned chickpeas, a thicker bread-meets-pita thing called pranta, and my favorite tea tarik. Bhagwan was full of interesting information on how the Sikh religion is actually a blending of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. He then invited us upstairs so we could see the prayer taking place, with the females sitting on the left of the room, and the males sitting on the right, everyone cross-legged on the floor. Well I managed to get reprimanded (again!) by another woman within two minutes because I didn't realize that while I sat on the floor I couldn't stretch my legs and straighten them out in front of me by pointing them towards the front of the room (it is considered rude/inappropriate). Thankfully I managed to make it through the rest of the prayer without getting any further correction. We then went to Bhagwan's skyscraper apartment located just outside of city proper, with amazing views of the Penang skyline. Again we were spoiled by a couchsurfing host with our own private bedroom and bathroom.
That same day we met up with the couchsurfing Nomadic Ambassador from France, Alex, as well as some other couchsurfers at Penang's monthly Street Festival, which was reminiscent of an Art & Wine Festival from back home. Alex volunteered at the House of Hope for Children, another volunteer program that we were volunteering at later that week. Alex was full of interesting stories, and how he was personally working to bridge the gap between the US and France one conversation at a time...he repeated to us several times how much he LOVED the United States.
After our time with Alex, and working on strengthening those French-American relationships, we went to go meet with Ang again. Today was our day to volunteer with Ang at the handicap house. The handicap house welcomed volunteers to spend time with its handicap residents who needed interaction and social stimulation. When we arrived, Ang quickly connected us with residents that we could help most (those that spoke some English so we could have quality communication).
After our time at the handicap house with Ang, Bhagwan came and met all of us for dinner at the The Culinary Center at the Palace of Fine Arts right down the street from where we were volunteering.
The next morning Bhagwan took us to the Mahikari center where he volunteered. We learned that Mahikari is a Japanese healing art form where qualified practitioners share "light", and it has a transforming peaceful effect on the recipient.
Feeling "lighter", Keith and I then went to meet up again with Alex from couchsurfing to go volunteer with him at House of Hope for Children. These children came from broken families living in impoverished conditions, and these children need guidance/support/role models to spend time with them in a safe and nurturing environment.
That night we went back to the Chinese Emperor's Temple to meet up with Ang and several other couchsurfers to see the elaborate celebration marking the last night of their "vegetarian fast".
Bhagwan was an amazing host, again reaffirmed the beauty of couchsurfing and the wonderful people that exist all over the world. He even dropped us off at the ferry the next morning. He was generous in more ways than one...sharing his apartment, sharing "light", and sharing his interest in meeting people from around the world. We were grateful for yet another wonderful couchsurfing experience.
When we got off the ferry at Langkawi's port, we knew we wanted to catch a taxi to a beach area called Pantai Cenang to look for a hostel. Keith spotted another backpacker and quickly offered to share our ride and split the fare, and this is how we met Fabian. We immediately clicked with Fabian, and wound up spending every day in Langkawi together. Fabian's signature saying "WHY NOT?" quickly became our Langkawi mantra. (For example: Let's eat at Tomato Restaurant for the millionth time this week...."Why not?"...Do you want to listen to more reggae music at Legends Bar for the third night in a row...."Why not?")
Julia got into town a couple of days later, and we immediately clicked with her too. Julia was a waitress at that same posh Swiss ski resort. Meeting Julia and Fab was a definite highlight of our Langkawi experience.
Fab and Julie had expressed interest in checking out the famous full moon party on Koh Phangan island in Thailand...which was our next stop. We offered to split our reserved hostel space with them, so they knew they had a place to stay once they got there. They wanted to stay behind in Langkawi, Malaysia one more day, and cross the border to Thailand the day after us. So with a plan to meet up with them later, Keith and I said our goodbyes to Malaysia, and started our adventure. The plan was to catch the ferry from Langkawi, Malaysia, to mainland Satun, Thailand, and then road travel across the Thailand peninsula and catch another ferry to Koh Phangan, Thailand. This string of connections is where we experienced THE MOST challenging part of our world travels so far. (Details to be revealed in our next blog...) But in summary, if at some point in your life you just so happen to find yourself looking for transportation from Langkawi, Malaysia to Koh Phangan, Thailand, DO NOT use a travel agency off the main drag in Langkawi!