The first two weeks of Malaysia...

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 23, 2004

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, September 30, 2003

I wish that I could write of the deep physical and emotional hardships of travelling in Malaysia, stories of Phil and I battling through the cultural quagmire, desperately trying to make ourselves understood, begging for a bit of food to sustain us another day. That would be impressive, wouldn't it? Except that everyone speaks English. And not the way I "speak" Spanish ("Bano? El bano? Please, I drank A LOT of coffee, you know, el coffee? and I REALLY need your el bano!"); no, nearly everyone can discuss not just the activities of daily living, but also gently correct me on my improper grammer. My improper ENGLISH grammer, in case that wasn't clear. And the transportation is quick and clean and efficient. And the food is...easy to order. It may be that you end up ordering, say, a rotisserie duck who remains in firm contact with his head, or a steaming bowl of pig organ soup, but it is extremely easy to order those dishes. So, with the understanding that it is easier to travel here than in some parts of the States, this is our trip so far in Malaysia.

We flew into Singapore from Bali; it felt even more like the US than our first visit. We spent two nights in a marginally acceptable hotel and paid 5 times more than in Bali, but Singapore has the benefits of a first-world city, in addition to the cost. We went to the Night Safari, and it was fabulous. I especially liked the Bat House; there were no barriers between you and the bats. Well, except Phil, but I was just pushing him in front so that he could get a better look. Really. He will probably believe me when the rabies shots are finished. No, just kidding, the bats were very well behaved. So was Phil.

We took a bus to the border with Malaysia and, with only a minimal amount of confused milling in front of Immigration (we weren't sure if we could bring in our Singaporen bananas; for the public's general information, you can, if Immigration ignores you), we crossed into Johor Bharu. The difference is immediately noticeable; although I have not gotten harassed in any way, there was a significant increase in the amount of staring. Even though male Westerners don't normally get as much attention as the women, Phil's red hair attracts quite a lot of interest. I have remained very conservative in my clothing; I usually wear either long pants and a elbow-length shirt, or, more often, my "Westerner burqa": a long-sleeve, loose-fitting gray shirt and a long, baggy skirt. It is my respect for the Malaysian Muslim culture, and not my complete lack of personal style, that results in my wearing clothes which don't match. At least, that's what I tell myself when I am looking at the photos we have taken with the digital camera, and I realize that it is going to look as if I have worn the same outfit since we left home.

We left Johor Bharu for Melaka (also spelled Malacca), which is a small city on the west coast, just south of Kuala Lumpur. Malacca was a great place to relax and eat our weight in Indian food. The area has quite a history of foreign occupation: Portugal, Holland, and England all ruled at one time or another, and influence from all three is mixed with Malay and Chinese, and makes for really creative architecture. We walked up Bukit China ("China Hill"), now a Chinese cemetary and public park, and to the ruins of St Paul's Church, which held the remains of St. Francis for nine months (before he was moved to Goa, India, and before the church was turned into a gunpowder storage area; bet he was glad they moved him FIRST). It is a really easy city to navigate and to see the sights on your own, but the real highlight of our visit here was a guided boat tour. Not for the sights from the canal, although we saw some very fat monitor lizards and had a nice view of the reconstruction the city is doing to clean up the canalfront. No, the highlight was our guide, who interspersed pointing out Malacca's landmarks with more....personal commentary, like home cures for constipation ("papaya every morning, and you add a little lime, but not too much or you need the diapers") and the cost of a beer in every bar and restarant we passed ("you buy some beer here, I don't have personal interest in this bar, I just saving you some money. Money buys beer!"). It was priceless.

After three very relaxing days in Melacca, we headed to central Malaysia to Taman Negara National Park for some jungle trekking. There have, supposedly, been sightings of large animals in the park (leopards, elephants, etc), but not for several years. We went to see primary jungle and sweat. Both goals accomplished. The first day we walked to the Canopy Walkway, which is a rope and cable bridge strung 40 meters in the air through the jungle canopy. Actually, we only walked half of it because we were told that the other half was "closed for annual repair". We walked under that section later; large parts of the wooden slats you walk on were missing. We were glad someone noticed it needed repairing before we visited. We also hiked to Gua Telingga, the Ear Cave. This was a really unique and interesting experience involving bat guano. My first, actually. We weren't even sure we would fit through several parts of the cave because it was so narrow. Fortunately for us, the bats generously and thoughtfully greased every surface of the cave with guano, so it was like a really narrow, really smelly Slip-N-Slide. But the cave had hundreds of bats, and they flew so close that their wings brushed against my cheek and my glasses. So far, bats are the biggest animal contact we have had on this trip. Well, leeches are a close second, but I am getting ahead of myself....

The next day we went on a 2 day trek to several caves in the north of the park. It was a challenge, not only because the terrain was primarily muddy tree roots, but also because we were soaked with sweat from the humidity. Phil's hat was steaming for almost the whole day; it made him look like a volcano. We had been warned about leeches, but at first all we saw were these tiny little inch worms which stood up on one end and waved at us. They were so cute. They were leeches. They got into the vents on our boots and we burned them off with lighters. Phil and I both had our pant legs tucked into thick wool socks; not the next big look coming out of Milan, I imagine, but it kept us basically leech-free. We spent the night in a massive cave which had elephant poop near the entrance, and Mike (our guide) said it was probably a week old. The only animal life we saw that night, though, was a ceiling full of bats (of course), and a small rat which ran over my foot as we were playing cards. Yes, I initially thought it was a kitten. The mind is an amazingly powerful thing... The next day we hiked to a hide (a hut on stilts used for night-watching of animals) and then to the river to head back to the village. It was sad because we had been hiking with three other people, who continued on for another night: Gemma and Dan (England), and Erwin (Ireland). It is true that one of the best things about travelling is meeting really fabulous people; they even made running the gauntlet of leeches fun.

One of the best parts of a trip to (and from) Taman Negara is the two to three hour boat trip between the jetty and the park village. There is also a minibus option that only takes 90 minutes, but on the boat trip we saw water buffalo. And a monkey. So the boat is obviously cooler. So, after 5 days in Taman Negara, we headed back to Jerantut to catch the night train to Kuala Lumpur. Trains: what a brilliant way to travel. We splurged on sleeper berths and Phil and I were asleep within minutes. It was heaven.

We stayed in Kuala Lumpur (KL) for three days; saw two movies; went to the Islamic Arts Museum (very cool scale models of several mosques around the world); had a room with a/c for $5. It is really easy to get around KL; three subway train lines go through most of the city, but they are all separately run, so you have to pay for a new ticket when you switch to a different line, but they are still very good for getting around the city. Phil has been talking longingly of snow and skiing, so, in the interest of keeping my beautiful and adaptable and infinitely patient husband from melting in the tropical heat, we caught a bus to our current location: Cameron Highlands. Since this has been an insanely long entry, I will write about Tanah Rata in the next chapter...
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