Twice as Nice: Malaysia Travels

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Monday, March 16, 2009

Vacation Time

My school offers the most vacation time at the end of winter. We have a week off for the Chinese New Year and then roughly a month later the foreigners get the first week of March off. The first of these two weeks Helen and I ventured to Malaysian Borneo on a free package tour for about four days. The second week, while Helen attended workshops and managed other student-less work at school, I headed to peninsular Malaysia with some foreign school friends for another week of sunshine. The following entry is what transpired during those Malaysia trips. Enjoy!

Chinese New Year

Despite the name, the holiday is big in most of Asia, especially in countries proximal to the mainland or with large Chinese populations. Korea happens to be in the first category and calls the holiday 'seolnal,' though they don't pronounce the "n." Similar to the Korean Thanksgiving holiday (chuseok), almost everyone goes to visit their family. They eat special foods, young-ins do deep bows to their elders and in return are given rather large chunks of cash.

We happened to be flying to Borneo on this day. To celebrate, the airport Cultural Exchange Center, which happened to be next to our gate, was offering foreigners the opportunity to make traditional paneled pictures or byeongpoong and dress up in traditional Korean clothes called hanbok. I partook in both activities, and for those of you that have seen my facebook profile of late, that was the resulting photo.

The flight took five hours but was made more comfortable by exit seats and the screening of Eagle Eye, which was way better than I thought it would be.

Hello Tour Group

As you probably know, Koreans, like the Japanese, are really into package tours. Outside of the cheap prices, I'm not so into them. Personally, I would rather talk to the locals who speak English, rather than listen to Koreans, who I barely understand, tell me about local culture. The most frustrating part of this tour guide was that his English was decent, but he had to speak in Korean, because I was the only English speaker on the tour.

Fortunately for us, we were on a free package, which allowed us to do whatever we wanted without the tour group. However, we did have to drive from the airport to the hotel with them. This wasn't so bad, but check-in was. They gave us a room occupied by another couple and then took forever to fix it. When we finally did get our own room, it was spacious and nice, lots of tile, glass and high ceilings. We went to sleep happy to be in the tropics with warm weather away from the Korean cold.

Exploring Kota Kinabalu

On Borneo, the world's third largest island, we spent all our time in this city often abbreviated KK. Malaysia has two provinces located on the northern coast of Borneo. Serawak is in the west and Sabah, where we were, is in the east. The oil rich Brunei is in between the two provinces and the southern half of the island is occupied by Indonesia.

Borneo is a land of superlatives. Home to the world's smallest elephant, largest flower and tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, it's an outdoor person's paradise. I only wish I could have spent more time there.

Our first day we took a shuttle to downtown Kota Kinabalu, where we were dropped off at a mall. We explored the mall for a bit and headed to the waterfront. Although there are no beaches in the city, the water and air are pristine. With virtually no factories or heavy polluting industries, it was refreshing to breathe such clean air and enjoy such plush vistas. Most of Borneo is rain forest with a few cities on the coastline and even less in the interior.

After a nice hot walk we headed for some air conditioning in the Hilton Hotel where we booked our island hopping tour for the next day. We sought out some local fare at a Malay restaurant (cheap, delicious, cafeteria style) and then ventured back to the mall for our shuttle home. The shuttle never arrived, so we cabbed back with another couple staying at our hotel. The rest of our day was spent enjoying the hotel amenities: pool with water slide and masseuse, private beach, buffet dinner and TV. It was a good night!

Island Hopping

We awoke early to enjoy another hotel buffet and meet our guide at the lobby. We mini-bused into town and walked around the wharf before embarking. The first island was called Mamutik. It was a beautiful palm laden island with white sandy beaches and clear water. After snorkelling for awhile we were treated for a full buffet with special seafood and meat dishes, delish! Another highlight worth mentioning was Helen's snorkelling. She did it sans life jacket for the first time and only freaked out once. This was great considering she only learned to swim a year ago.

The second island called Manukan was also great, but we were a bit islanded out by that point. Besides, the water made me itchy for some reason and it started raining. On the boat ride home we were treated to a cool thunderstorm. It continued to pour on land. Almost every day in Borneo beautiful sunny days are interrupted by an hour or two of rain. It's quite nice really.

The taxi ride home in the rain was quite informational. The driver spoke great English and was very keen to chat. I learned that Sabah (the Malaysian Borneo province we were on) has more than 80 language dialects. Most people speak at least three languages: Malay, English and something else, usually a tribal language or Chinese. Our driver spoke around 5 or 6 well. All schools teach English and Malay, which is great for English speaking tourists. Private schools usually teach Chinese as well. Basically, Malays are really good at language!   

At home we indulged in yet another buffet dinner and watched more quality TV. Malay TV features programming in all sorts of languages. Almost everything is subtitled in Chinese, Malay or English or some combination of the three. We enjoyed it thoroughly.

Last Day Already!

After the breakfast buffet and check-out, we joined the tour group for a Korean meal in town. Unlike the crappy China package, this was the only time we had to hang out with our Korean package friends. It wasn't too bad either. The Dad we sat with was quite entertaining. From there we headed back to the mall. We found a crazy movie theater at the top floor. The whole mall was quite modern, but the theater was like something out of a sci-fi movie. It was a maze. Theaters were all over the place, not really organized in any sort of rational way. In between theaters were bowling alleys, pool halls and video game rooms. It was definitely amusing and only $1 for a movie ticket.

Entering the movie, we realized why it was so cheap. The theater seating was pre-stadium style. The kind of theater mostly all replaced during the 90s in the US. The movie, Inkheart, was average, Brendan Fraser's forte. However, it was interesting to see subtitles in both Malay and Chinese on the screen. During longer lines, the subtitles would cover part of the picture.

We decided to try Malay massage afterwards. We both received an hour and a half aroma therapy massage. Helen liked it much more than me. My guy kept touching my butt and it was more painful than relaxing. I'm definitely going to stick with foot and hands from now on. The Laos foot massage is still my favorite ever.

Later we dined at a delicious Indian restaurant with a friendly waiter. After we headed to the waterfront for some ice cream. Once finished we taxied to the airport, spending the last of our Malaysian Ringgit.

Overall, the trip to Borneo was fabulous and I would recommend it to anyway considering going. However, our trip was way too short. We didn't get to see the Orangutans, the Probiscus Monkeys (huge nose that look like a penis), the massive flowers, small elephants, Mount Kinabalu or the beautiful sea turtles. Basically, I want to go back and do all the outdoor stuff we missed out on during our short trip. Anybody want to join?

Round Two: Peninsular Malaysia

About a month after returning from Borneo, we had another week off at my school. This time for the first week of school. The Korean school year begins in March, and since we pull students from their public schools, we can't justify taking them during their first week. This is great for us foriegn teachers who get the week off. It's not so great for the Korean teachers who are forced to sit through lectures and do prep work the entire week. Considering Helen is one of those Korean teachers, I would not be travelling with her this time. Instead, I would journey with Matt (from the Thailand blog) and John, two teachers at my school.

Despite a layover in Kota Kinabalu (KK), the flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL), was made quite pleasant by wine and conversation with John. When we arrived in KL, John's lady friend Amy picked us up at the airport. As a Chinese Malaysian, Amy speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay and English! We headed to Chinatown to a hotel called the D'Oriental. Apparently I messed up the online reservation, so John was out a couple ringitt. After settling we ventured out for some Chinese grub. It was delicious, greasy and cheap. Matt and I split up with the love birds and found a Beatles-themed hookah bar to whittle the night away.

Batu Caves 

Beside a sizable Chinese population, KL is also home to a large Indian one. We saw this firsthand in our visit to the Batu Caves. We took a cheap public bus which took forever to find. Once we found it, we did meet some interesting Dutch folks, who we made friends with for the day. The bus ride began as a relatively comfortable affair, but quickly grew overcrowded and hot. Malaysian buses almost always wait until the bus is full to leave. On this occassion the bus was full at the first stop. Each proceeding stop, more and more sari-clad Indians piled on with big bags of hawkable food and merchandise.

The mild discomfort was more than worth it. The Batu Caves is a limestone hill complete with a series of caverns. The main entrance is guarded by a gold 140 foot tall statue of Murugan, Hindu god of war. To reach the caves, we had to climb 272 steep steps. I know the exact number because they are numbered. The best part of the climb was looking down. Below were hundreds of Indians clothed in bright, beautiful saris.  

After the hike up, we entered Cathedral Cavern, a massive 100 meter-high vaulted cave. Once finished oohing and awing, we moved onto the final cavern. Here monkeys climbed down a high cavern wall from a forest canopy to be fed by visitors. People were also lighting candles to another Hindu shrine. We chose to respectfully decline the candle lighting.

During the hike out Matt convinced me to go spelunking or caving. Decked out in rubber boots and hard hats, we trekked around the caves for about an hour with an informative, funny guide. We saw some funny rock formations: happy Buddha, E.T. and Karma Sutra rock. Also, we experienced total darkness, which is something us city folk rarely enjoy. Most importantly, I took a picture of Matt with four arms. Apparently action photography in caves is rather difficult.

Lake Gardens

From the caves we taxied back to Chinatown with our Dutch companions, ate, shopped and parted ways. Matt and I decided to take the Monorail. As an above ground public transport, it's a cheap, effective way to see the city of KL. We got off at KL Sentral (the main station) and taxied to Lake Gardens, a massive park that looked promising. The driver dropped us off at the national monument, conveniently located far away from everything else we wanted to see in the park. We walked around the strangley US-esque war memorial and then started walking in search for entertainment. We stumbled upon a flower garden, which was pretty, but left us more isolated. We walked back by all sorts of monkeys walking on the sidewalk, climbing telephone wire and occasionally  humping each other. . 

We made it back to the flower entrance and it started pouring, a regular afternoon event in Malaysia. We sought shelter under trees and bus stops, and finally found a cab to take us back to Chinatown. Not before we were totally soaked though. The rest of the evening was spent cleaning up, eating McDonalds and getting a massage. What else are foreigners supposed to do when it's pouring? Anyway, the McD's was really tasty, better than the US or Korea, I thought.

Flying to Langkawi Island

KL has two airports. The international is a comfortable 20 minute train ride from downtown, while the domestic is an hour bus ride outside the city. We were lucky enough to be the last passengers on the bus, so it left right away. Running late, we were feeling good until the delays started happening. The airport made no sense. They kept lining us up for the flight, but the line never moved. Feeling lazy and frustrated we waited in our seats. An hour later, we apparently missed our flight and had to wait another two for the next one. We were not pleased.

When we finally reached our tropical destination, it was pouring...ahh! Downtrodden, we took an airport taxi to a hotel from the guidebook, the AB Hotel. We found John and Amy sheltering from the rain when we arrived. Although they weren't staying there, they had used our Hotel's beach and now our check-in area to stay dry. We parted ways, grabbed some umbrellas and hit the town for some good pizza. Shortly thereafter we passed out hoping for better weather.


The next day the great weather arrived. The entire day was spent exploring the town on foot, soaking up sun, swimming and enjoying good food. Malay food for breakfast, Indian for lunch and Spanish Tapas for dinner. We were in heaven and spending almost all our money on food, well worth it. The best part was that Langkawi, a tax free tropical island paradise, only charges $1 for beer. The rest of Malaysia is relatively anti-alcohol (mostly Muslim country) and charges a lot for the right to consume. In addition, John showed up around sunset and played frisbee with us. It was a great day in paradise!

Car Day

Langkawi is a very large island and you can't see much of it if you stay on your beach the whole time. It is quite tempting to go nowhere though considering the soft sand beaches, beautiful weather, perfect water temperature and exquisite sunsets. Anyway, we broke out of our beach bubble by renting a car for abour $20 for the day. This car was a piece of work. Everything was manual and it smelled just slightly moldy. Who knows what this car had been through? They drive on the left in Malaysia, so Matt (the former semi-truck driver) was the designated driver. I was not ready to drive a stick on the other side in a foreign country without a license. This didn't seem to deter Matt though.

Our first stop on our car journey was the airport to straighten out our tickets. I booked them incorrectly online...oops. The second stop was an expensive cafe situated in a beautfiul bay filled with pricey sailboats. After we went to the Langkawi Cable Car, an active but fun tourist trap. Located atop Langkawi's tallest peak, the cable car is a 2 km uphill climb to the first platform. We made the mistake of getting out at the first overlook. Although the views were great, it took forever for other passengers to get out so we could ride to the top. The top features a curved bridge at the side of a mountain peak with fabulous ocean views. The whole experience was fabulous. Plus, it was fun to interact with fellow Saudi and Indonesian tourists.

After cable carring, we headed to a waterfall to cool off and jump off rocks, it was very refreshing. Then, the challenging navigating began. Although there aren't many roads in Langkawi, the standard tourist map is not the best way to navigate them. After many u-turns, we figured out how to circumnavigate the island. Along the way we stopped at a black beach rest-stop complete with a nuclear power plant backdrop. It was an odd scene to say the least. Our next beach stop was fabulous. Located on the northern tip of the island, Tanjung Rhu beach might be the best I've ever been. Perfect soft sand, amazing rock formation island backdrop, wonderful water and the best part: almost no people. Apparently this is where celebrities go when the come to Malaysia.  

The rest of the car trip was rather uneventful. We saw Langkawi's biggest city, Kuah Town, and filled up our tank to a satisfactory level with only $10. It was a small car. The night ended with beach soccer and frisbee during a picturesque sunset. Later some food and beer aided our sleep.

More Relaxing

We were very good at sleeping on this trip and kept missing the island hopping trip that left early in the morning. No worries, we had a wonderful beach and Underwater World, a massive aquarium, a short walk away. We even made it in time to see the advertized shark feeding. A man in scuba gear swam around and fed all the various creatures: fish, sharks, rays, etc. We even ran into John and Amy again. It was like an every other day event. The oddest part of the Underwater World was the 3D movie, which was the most random movie I've ever seen. It made no sense and the graphics were really cheesy. It made for some good laughs though. In typical island fashion, a sunset, delicious dinner and some beer ended the night.

Island Hopping in Langkawi

We finally go our act together and woke up on time to hop some islands. We travelled by packed mini bus to the wharf where a rather surly Malay guide awaited us. Luckily we had some good English speaking Malay tourists on our boat to translate, because his English was sparse. The boat ride was phenomenal. The covered speed boat sheltered us from the sun as we took in the wonderful view. The area we travelled was mountainous and filled with strangely formed islands. Adding to the vista, was the clear, clean water providing stunning reflections.

The euphoria ended at the first island. Before venturing to shore on the long dock, I spotted a sign saying "No Plastic Bags Monkey Attack!!!." Laughing it off as a joke, I continued ahead with our plastic bag full of food (we both forgot our backpacks). A huge, old, angry monkey approached baring his teeth. Not really knowing what to do, I gave the bag to Matt (what a friend!) and scurried ahead. Matt also not knowing what to do, gave into the monkey and gave him all the food in the bag. That didn't quite stop the attack though. Conditioned to believe all plastic bags contain food, the monkeys continued to harass, even without any food. We finally made it to shore ready to get away from the annoying beasts.

On shore we hiked a short distance to a nearby scenic lake. It looked like great fun to swim in, but nobody was despite all the swimwear being sold and swimmer-friendly dock. We joined the masses in a comfortable sit. After our sit we went back to the boat for our next island journey. Actually we never made it on shore, but we did feed some sea eagles from the boat close to the coastline. That was entertaining. The island after that was very strange. The guide asked if we wanted to go to a popular spot or a secluded spot. In unison, we selected the empty locale, which turned out to be empty for a reason. With coral close to shore and no snorkel gear, we couldn't swim and most of the island was rocky and unreachable. 

To relieve our frustrations, the guide took us to the popular island complete with soft drinks and snacks. Monkeys asked for all the leftovers and I got lots of cute pictures of them drinking out of soda cans. The island was beautiful and ripe for swimming and relaxing. After about an hour we returned to the mainland and back to the hotel. We grabbed a big Mexican lunch and never really recovered from the food coma, doing little else the rest of the evening.

Korea via KL  

After a wonderful breakfast in a friendly fun place called Tomato, we ventured to the airport and back to KL. With some time to kill we took the Monorail (completely packed!) to KL Tower. The ticket included the observation deck, Winter Park, petting zoo and formula one! Considering we had nothing better to do, we did all four. The view was definitely the best. The city is massive and the 360 degree view reminded me of Tokyo with Petronas Towers. Also interesting was Winter Park. It was hilarious taking pictures of plastic snowmen and gingerbread houses with a Petronas Tower background.

Finished with our towering, we taxied to a Thai restaurant, or at least tried. Since the driver couldn't find it in the pouring rain, we settled for an Irish Pub. On TV was a Celtics game and a rugby match. Those of you who know me well, know which TV I sat in front of for my expensive meal. I was happy to spend the rest of my money on overpriced western food. After grubbing, we took the monorail to KL Sentral and then took the train to the airport. As usual, we ran into Amy and John on the train. We hung out with them at the airport, taking goofy pictures in front of a goofy castle backdrop. Matt and I left the lovers for their final moments, preparing ourselves for the flight back to Korea.

Homeward Bound

I started writing this blog about 2 months ago, but my new job, the nice weather and NBA playoffs have left me with little time and energy to finish it. It would have taken me longer, but I really wanted to have it done before I headed home. That's right, I'll be home May 15-31, 2009. In case you are not aware, I will be swinging through Chicago, Minnesota and Seattle. So let me know if you want to hang out.

As always, let me know how you are doing. This is my way to keep in contact with those friends and family that I miss.

I hope all is well.
Much love, Bill
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