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Stories from Malaysia

Johore Bharu, Malaysia

Waiting for a Plane to Bali

timWe left Singapore from an airport in Malaysia. In choosing to leave from Johore Bharu instead of Singapore, we saved $160 and committed ourselves to waking at 5:30 AM to make our 11 AM flight. We left enough time to clear Malaysian customs, and ended up at the airport with 2.5 hours to kill.

While we stood clueless in the center of the airport, a 60-ish year old Singaporean man approached us. His looked both youthful and grandfatherly: neat and fit, yet with receding salt and pepper hair, gold wire frame glasses, and a conservative light green polo shirt tucked into dress pants. He introduced himself as Kway Tee Soo, and he too was on the bus from Singapore and waiting for his flight.

We talked while standing in the middle of the airport, then continued our conversation in the cafe. Mr. Soo insisted on buying our coffee when he found out that we lacked Malaysian currency. Though Malaysian by birth, Singapore had been home for many years. He spoke with pride about Singapore's rules, economy, and society.

You can learn from listening to outsiders talk about your country. Mr. Soo spoke at length about America, basing his views on the six weeks he spent in Cincinnati visiting his brother-in-law. Cincinnati isn't a tourist mecca of the US, but he certainly met interesting people there.

One such person was the bus driver of an inner city bus, who noticed Mr. Soo following the bus to the end of its line. When driver asked if he was lost, Mr. Soo explained that he was trying to see the whole town. The bus driver bought him coffee during his break and gave him the return trip for free.

Mr. Soo witnessed a child in a convenience store purchasing a condom. The Singaporean man was shocked, and asked the child with a thick Asian accent, "Hey you, why you need that?" The child said he had a girlfriend and wanted to be safe. "How old are you?" When Mr. Soo found out the child was 10, he left the store shocked.

He talked about American problems, such as trading food stamps for beer, in a unique sage-like manner. During his trip, he noticed four rough men outside of a convenience store drinking. In a move that only someone not American would attempt, he asked them the question, "I'll buy you each a beer. Who wants a beer?" In a chorus of yes's he made four instant friends. Mr. Soo was a cunning man, I quickly understood. His next question was not so easy. The Singaporean continued, "You are all sitting there on good hands, how come you not working?" I pictured him wagging his finger slowly down the line at each of the four men. "They just tell me they don't want to flip burgers, but they just sit there drinking. What else can they do? If nothing else, maybe they should be flipping burgers." Surprisingly, he left the store without a scratch. Mr. Soo was such a likeable person; I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of the men went out and found a job the next day.

A great flood swept through the Midwest during his visit. The government quickly erected temporary shelter, people volunteered in droves to bag sand, and 40-foot trucks overflowed with donations. As an American, I was happy to be reminded that we can be generous on occasion.

We parted ways during our layover in Kuala Lumpur. No doubt Mr. Soo is out there now, saying hello to another stranger. top

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Arriving in Malaysia

michelleWe flew into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia today. On the hour long bus ride from the airport into the city center I was immediately struck by the wide, paved highways, clear blue sky, unlittered ground - things we had not seen for 4 weeks while in Indonesia.

We found a hotel in the center of Chinatown. Although windowless, the room has air conditioning, television, and hot water. Luxury as far as we are concerned. Now if we could only get rid of the loud neighbors, thin walls, and an abundance of cockroaches!

Life in Chinatown is VIBRANT! Walking around you must weave your way through narrow aisles lined with stalls selling cheap merchandise - CDs, wallets, T-shirts, watches and knick-knacks. Equally present are food stalls selling roasted chestnuts, tropical fresh fruit, tofu drinks, peanut pancakes, and meat grilled on sticks.

I always feel in my element where there is good Chinese food. Tables flow out of restaurants right onto the streets here. I look for the restaurants full of locals and eat there. Noodles, tofu, stir-fry, dim sum, won ton... bring it on!

We will spend a couple of days here exploring the city and then head north.



A Muslim woman walks down a street in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.

Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

Jungle Boat

timTamran Negara National Park is fast becoming one of Malaysia's best tourist destinations. With 4343 sq kilometers of ancient untouched rainforest, it is easy to see why. Though hiking in the park is an experience not to be missed, getting there is half the fun.

OK, so the first half of the trip from Kuala Lumpur bored me. The four hours by air conditioned bus across average scenery lulled me to sleep, and I didn't feel the least bit guilty. But I woke up quickly when I walked down to the floating dock to board the ferry.

I was expecting one big slow boat. Instead I found several sleek looking long boats. They were proportioned like dugout canoes, but constructed from long planks of wood instead of one solid tree. Each boat sat 8 pairs of people, two by two down the hull. We sat on the floor close to the water on cushions. Above our heads, a thin tin roof pot marked with holes kept the sun away.

The 60 km trip up the muddy river wound us through the huge trees of the rainforest for about two and a half hours, treating us to views of half submerged water buffalo, fishermen throwing nets, little naked kids swimming, and houses floating next to the shore. It was a beautiful trip, made perfect on our arrival to the village when the setting sun cast a nice warm glow across the river.


The River Ordeal

michelleAfter a long day of hiking, Tim and I were looking forward to dinner. At the bank of the river are a number of floating restaurants. It's a relaxing atmosphere to eat while watching boats go by, but this night was anything but peaceful.

We just sat down and were looking at menus when at the far corner of the restaurant, near the kitchen, a woman started screaming hysterically. I thought maybe she burned herself. It took a moment before people reacted; the screaming took everyone by surprise. The woman's young daughter (about 3 or 4 years old) had fallen in the river and was somewhere submerged in the brown, murky water. Once the horror of the situation registered, people began running into the river desperately trying to locate the child. There was no sign of her. As the minutes ticked by, and no body was found I realized it was unlikely the child would be found alive.

During the whole ordeal, the sobbing mother stood in the water, grabbing at the river, the monster who had snatched her child. I stood and helplessly watched. I had not felt this helpless since watching my mother fight her monster, cancer. All I could do was pray that God would spare this little girl's life.

The men in the water decided the child must have floated under the restaurant. They quickly untied the ropes attaching the restaurant to the shore and pushed it deeper into the river. As they lifted and struggled with it, the child emerged. Thankfully, other than looking a little dazed, she seemed ok. It was all so confusing that I am not sure what happened, but she must have been trapped in an air pocket below the restaurant.

The evening had a happy ending and I cried as I watched the mother sob as she was reunited with her daughter. But the memory of the woman's screams will haunt me for a long time. top

The Jungle People

michelleWhile in the jungle, Tim and I took a tour of the "Batek" people, the Orang Asli - the Malaysian aborigines who live in the jungle. Our guide, Ismail, was a local Malaysian who lived in the village where we were staying. After a short boat trip up the river we landed on a sandy shore. We climbed up a muddy, steep bank and then walked down a path into the jungle. It was evening and the sun was setting. After a couple minutes of walking we arrived in a large clearing. Many eyes stared at us from the dark shadows of the crude shelters before us. The batek people live in simple structures floored of wood and roofed with woven dried leaves.

Ismail sat us down on benches and started to explain their culture. They did not speak Malaysian or English, so they just stared and watched us. I was amazed at the number of children. It is not certain their origin, but they looked African with their dark skin and curly hair. They are nomadic, moving five to six times a year and are reliant on the jungle to survive.

They mostly eat vegetables and fruits, but also eat small animals from the jungle û barking deer, monkeys, and squirrels. They use long blowpipes and small poisonous darts as their weapons. The pipes and darts are made of bamboo and the poison is from the sap of a tree. The poison is so strong it kills humans in two to three minutes. We were given a demonstration of how the blowpipe is used. A tribesman blew one of the darts into a small target on a distant tree. Impressive! I thought to myself, I would never want to meet one in the jungle as an enemy!

As we were sitting there, Tim nudged me to look at a young boy sitting a few meters from us on a log. From his lips hung a cigarette and he was intensely carving with a ferocious looking knife. He looked about 6 years old but had the presence of an adult. Our guide said they start smoking at four or five and work with knives from the time they are able to hold them. Looking around I saw some toddlers playing with fire and others using large knives. In the States, children that age would just be beginning to play with Legos.

The batek people don't have a specific religion but are spiritual people. When an adult dies, the men take the body deep into the jungle and climb to the top of a very high tree. There they build a platform and place the dead body, wrapped in a blanket and leaves, on top. They believe that when an adult dies, the body is full of sin. By placing the body high in the tree, the rain can wash their sin to the ground and free their spirit to enter heaven. Children are born pure and have no sin yet û so they are buried in the ground.

The longer we stayed, the friendlier the children became. They never approached us but the girls would smile and giggle, hiding behind the adults. The women and men mostly just watched us curiously, but rarely returned a smile. It was hard for me to imagine their life in the jungle and the generations of wisdom they possessed about using the plants and animals in the jungle to survive. top

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia

White Sand

timPalau Perhenitan Kecil, or "Island Perhenitan Small", is located off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia about two hours distance on a slow ferry. Like the name says, the island is small. It isn't cluttered with roads or cars. Only a single lizard-covered jungle path cuts across the island. Individually owned generators supply electricity, but only when the owner of a guesthouse or restaurant wants to run one. Everything on the island crawls at a snail's pace. Don't expect to eat food quickly, it may take 30 minutes to get a menu and another hour to get food. But the beach is white, the water blue, and the relaxing atmosphere comatose.

When the rainy season starts on Palau Perhenitan Kecil, around late October, the island hibernates until the sun returns. We arrived to the island near that time, so we expected to get wet. Instead we lucked into four days of sun, visited only by thundering nighttime tropical storms.

We spent our time wisely: waking up late, reading, writing, talking, snorkeling, and sitting on the beach. Fully relaxed, we are ready to move on. Tonight we take a 10-hour night bus to the bustling town of Penang. top

Kota Baru, Malaysia


timPhoto check-in. top

Women surround themselves in produce in the Kota Baru market, Malaysia.

Penang, Malaysia

Dawn Arrival

timWe entered Penang on an all-night bus from the west coast town of Kota Bahru. I awoke to the noise of activity as people packed bags to leave and the driver shouted that we had arrived. My head felt thick with sleep. My shirt advertised this condition with a large blotch of drool centered on my chest. My blurry eyes read the time as 5:00 AM. I stumbled off the bus with the rest of the crowd.

The locals quickly went their own way, leaving us with a small group of dazed backpackers that had gathered on the curb and were trying to pinpoint their location on the Lonely Planet guide map. The conversation drifted to places to stay. One member of the group had a "great recommendation". The rest of the crowd decided to follow.

Few vehicles passed by us in these predawn hours. Nothing broke the silence but the occasional rev of a small motorcycle. Streetlights cast a sepia tone hue over the scene. Our group forged ahead like eight crazed villagers in a Frankenstein movie, holding our guidebooks up like torches.

We reached the castle gates of the guesthouse, but the castle's rolled steel doors were closed for the night. "Bang, bang, bang!" Our knocking echoed inside the building and woke up the proprietor, who looked with shocked confusion at the large group of people standing out front. Luckily, we all got rooms and slept the bus ride off until a more decent hour. When we woke up, the streets had filled with color and activity.

For better or worse, Penang is the cultural opposite of Kota Bahru. Kota Bahru's population is homogeneously Malay and Muslim. Residents appear in public with covered heads, attitudes are conservative, and people are reserved. In comparison, Penang's British founders gave the city an international feel similar to its neighboring cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (on a much smaller level). The indigenous Malay culture in Penang mixes heavily with Chinese, Indian, and British influences.

We stayed in the center of Chinatown and walked the city all day, soaking in the views of crumbly old buildings with shops selling Indian textiles and Chinese medicines, trishaw drivers who ply the streets looking for fares, street side noodle vendors stirring vats of broth, and old Chinese men sitting in the shadows watching life go by.


Asian street vendors such as this one in Penang, Malaysia, sell an amazing variety of cheap but excellent food. Two old men work outside in Penang, Malaysia, making keys. A rickshaw driver pedals down the street in the rain.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Durian Tasting

michelleToday is Tuesday, but it doesn't really matter. While traveling, the days seem to meld together and become one long stream of vibrant experiences.

We took a six hour bus ride today from Penang to the Cameron Highlands. The Highlands is a hill station known for it's cool temperatures and fertile land. People come here to relax, hike and enjoy the views. While in the Highlands we plan to visit a tea plantation, strawberry farm, a honey farm, and hike.

The road up to the Cameron Highlands is quite steep and windy and it was painful for our bus as it climbed up the mountain, groaning and shaking around each corner. We pulled up to the bus station safely, just as the sky opened up and began to pour.

Once Tim and I settled into our guesthouse and the rain had slowed, we set out to eat lunch. We found a pleasant Chinese restaurant and ordered. While waiting for our food I noticed outside on the sidewalk a group of men eating the fruit durian.

Durian is a popular fruit in Asia. The outside is green and spiny while the inside is white and fibrous. People who eat durian claim it tastes wonderful, but first you have to get over the smell. It has a distinct, foul smell that invades it's surrounding environment and offends the nose. Often we see signs forbidding durian entry in hotels because of how bad they smell.

The men seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely as I watched them slurp and suck at the fruit. I had seen durian at road stands, in the markets and smelled it everywhere, but had yet to see the inside. So filled with curiosity, I went out to the street to get a closer look. I was immediately invited to a taste. Cautiously I took a little. I found it had an interesting distinct flavor, but what it tasted like is hard to explain. It wasn't sweet the way I normally think of fruit. But it wasn't terrible either. I could see how one would need to acquire a taste for it though.

The men immediately decided to give me a durian tasting lesson. So one of them ran over to the durian vendor down the street and bought two more types. Durians are considered a specialty fruit and can be very expensive, so I was impressed at their generosity. Even though my first taste was plenty, I sat down with them and continued to eat. Every time I stopped eating they would cry, "Try! Try!" and encourage me to take some more. Soon we were discussing my ethnicity, where I was from, and how I liked Malaysia.

Inside the restaurant I could see Tim watching me, our lunch steaming in front of him, wondering if I was going to eat lunch with him. I was having so much fun talking to the men, it was hard to leave. But I had definitely had my share of durian! top

A cactus grows in a nursery in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. A cactus grows in a nursery in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.