#19: Malaysia (Truly Asia)

Right now in the term, school activities at ACN are aplenty, but lengthy holidays are few. The end of July brought the middle of our school term and, hoozah, a four day break! I don’t know many who would say the holiday, however short, wasn’t well-anticipated by both the little kids (students) and the big kids (teachers). How better to utilise our time than going sleep-deprived exploring around Malaysia?

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Our first stop was the ‘Pearl of The Orient’, Penang. Scouting the internet for info on Penang results in culture-drenched imagery, where the Oriental meets Bharat and the prolific Islamic architecture sits aside shrines decked with the faces of many Hindu gods. Our time in Penang was painfully short-lived, but it was spent in a tea-drunken haze of incense and curry. Many buildings in Asia naturally look a little run-down, but this is a key quirk in the city of George Town. Every corner reveals a shabby little street or alley where paint flakes off the archways to kitsch cafés and galleries.

Babas

From the off it’s clear that art is praised and widely encouraged around the city. We moved our way round on rusty old bicycles that let us look forward and up and soak in the streets. It’s also pretty convenient when you only have 36 hours to fall in love with a place. In 2013, the annual street art festival commissioned a bunch of steel rod sculptures in George Town, each giving a little dose of trivia about that area. This one, for example, reveals the house in which Jimmy Choo had his first apprenticeship:

Jimmy Choo

Chinese Tea ShopThe dreamiest thing about George Town is the complete lack of “must-do”s and tightly packed plans that when time isn’t on your side, becomes a holiday norm. Instead, Teacher Ais and I spent our numbered hours in the city drifting from coffee house to tea room to sandwich shop to food stalls, sampling every-flavoured culinary all sorts; grazing on veggie nasi lemak or roti canai in Little India (both are seen as typical Malay dishes); and washing it all down with copious amounts of Chinese teas from Chinatown.

The Chinese community dominate Penang –  there are thought to be more people of a Chinese ethnic composition that any other, even Malays. The result is that a fair amount of architecture other than the tradition brightly coloured townhouses that line the roads is comes from a traditionally Chinese influence. There are many clanhouses dotted around for instance, each quite intricately designed. A ‘kongsi’ was traditionally a clanhouse for family members to worship the family’s ancestors. The most renowned clanhouse, Khoo Kongsi, was formed by the Hokkien community some 650 years ago, and is tucked away off the main streets in George Town and took us a while to find. The house doubles up as a museum, presenting well-preserved and beautiful ornaments with small notes of info. In every direction my eyes looked, I saw elaborate décor spilling over the walls, ceiling and floor. Sculptured dragons and fish can be seen on the roof ridge, and paper lanterns fill up the ceiling inside the house.

Khoo Kongsi

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Probably the only thing that is, according to the locals, essential to do on the island is marvelling at the view from the top of Penang Hill. We were recommended to head there so we’d catch the sunset and see George Town all lit up like a Christmas tree. I think this was a bit of a stretch, but what we could see through the clouds was quite charming, especially when you’re seeing it over an English breakfast brew on a tea terrace. (Malaysia – truly Asia?!)

From Penang Hill

This was the first of a few times through the weekend we were mobbed by locals asking for photos and selfies.  Turns out we have celebrity status outside of Korat too! I dread to think how big my head is going to be by the time I leave Asia. A totally new one was a guy on a motorcycle riding up next me while cycling, taking his phone out and saying, “selfie?” Heads up – if you’re a female solo traveller (and especially if you’re blonde), it’s common courtesy to cover up, even in the more tourist-dominated areas. In both cities we travelled in, some males were a little unwelcoming towards us, even though we were following a dress conduct, but it’s easy to shake off and shouldn’t stop you from enjoying yourself.

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Being part of a predominantly Muslim country, there isn’t a wild nightlife in Penang, and in fact come 9pm a lot of the streets almost seem deserted. Down Love Lane, there’s a few hostels and food stalls, and “restoran”s are still open, but the rest of the city seems to go to bed fairly early. Through a maze of cafés and courtyards all joined together, we managed to find ourselves a bar for just what we needed – a quick (non-alco) drink and some good live music. From the street Lebuh Pantai, we found China House, a contemporary coffee shop selling light bites and a neverending choice of cakes. Paper coats the tables so while you’re slowing munching away, you can draw on the tables. If you’re particularly proud of your masterpiece at the end of your visit, you can hang it up on a line going across the length of the house’s wall.

Islam Blues

Upstairs is an art gallery hosting the work of local artists. Moving through the first house joins to another café, with a wine bar coming off the side. Moving through that café leads to a courtyard, subtly lit with red. Through the courtyard reveals the final destination, The Canteen. The drinks are a little pricey compared to the rest of Penang’s price range, but every night it showcases good quality live music; we caught some guitarist blues on our visit, the musician weighing in and out of classics by the likes of Nina Simone and improv instrumentals.

The Canteen

Kuala Lumpur

I was sad to say bye bye to Penang after such a short but sweet experience, but the time came quickly to shift the adventure into Malaysia’s capital. The last “big city” I went to outside of Thailand was Singapore, which has a worldwide rep for being clean and advanced. I felt there was a big question mark over KL’s head: what did it want to be when it grew up? There were the same run down building that we’d seen in Penang, yet they were in the shadows of modern towering buildings. These are of course what’s put KL on the map.

There are quite a few things to do on the outskirts of the city, but with such a short time to play with, we opted to visit the Batu caves. The caves are perched on a limestone hill in the Gombak district, where inside lies a Hindu shrine and many, many monkeys.

Monkey
Just before he grabbed hold of my bag and stole my last pandan roll

The caves follow in a series joined together, entered by 272 very steep steps (!) that are overlooked by the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity Murugan. Inside leads to a dark and open clearing, with several shrines built into the stone. Batu caves have been viewed as a religious site for Hindus for around 120 years.

Batu Caves Figures

In between ogling only a selected few of the many malls in Kuala Lumpur, a veggie thali pit stop and taking various types of transport, we spent the afternoon in the Menara KL observation tower. Even through the grey haze of cloud, the view was impressive and made me a little giddier about what we had planned for the evening. Some areas of KL feel a little unfriendly to pedestrians and throwing in a little traffic, the city can be hectic. Up on the observation deck, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “anything is peaceful from one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three feet.” Well – actually, it was about 906 feet, but it was still pretty peaceful.

Observation Deck

From here, it was onto KLCC for our last treat of the day. We’d been psyched about visiting the Petronas towers since we’d attempted to book a slot online (I managed to smooth talk our way to a reservation via email anyway) and I felt like the Menara KL was just an amuse-bouche for the twin towers. The towers are the creme de la creme of towers – everything was super snazzy and well thought out. Even the safety video that plays before the tour was projected onto a stream of smoke rather a screen! Screens in the windowless lift mimic the outside view, showing what you’d expect to see at the height that you’re ascending at.

Skybridge Water Show
42nd floor view of a light and water show below

A skybridge that cuts halfway between the two towers, weighing a couple of hundred tonnes, acts as an exit from whichever tower there may be an emergency. Every element of the architecture has been thoroughly considered – even the length of the skybridge is said to be of the necessary distance to allow enough air to pass around the towers without creating a microclimate. The towers’ base was created with the influence of Islam, the main star the cross-section forms showing unity. 88 floors up from the ground, and this is the view:

Petronas

The view

Merdeka SquareWe finished our trip off with a very sweaty and dehydrating walk from Chinatown to Merdeka Square, where I hadn’t seen so many kids doing kiddy things for a long time. A bit of heat didn’t seem to put people off skating and doing tricks on various types of wheels! Around the square boasts a fair few museums, varying in style and tradition. The city gallery is more like a house that someone put some students’ art in on the ground floor, but the upstairs is dedicated to KL’s ‘vision’ of the future. The room shows 5000 model buildings, most of which are in existence; through the course of the seven minute presentation about the communities, trade and history of Kuala Lumpur, it comes to light that some of the building are not yet constructed – the eyecatcher of the bunch is a huge model slap bang in the centre of the city, which towers over even the Petronas towers. Why? Who knows. Either way, it’s exciting to see the vision a city has for itself and its people.

Last but not least, we trudged ourselves up from the square to the Victory Monument. Things get a lot greener on the way to the monument, which makes the strength of the sun manageable. The victory monument was made as a commemoration to the country and its fight for freedom against its occupation by the Japanese in World War II.

Victory Monument 1 Victory Monument 2

I remember from a young age, Malaysia’s tagline for tourism bursting with colour onto TV screens as “Malaysia – truly Asia” and thinking, Asia seems like a pretty big place. How can it be “truly” Asia? Just a few days here felt like someone had handed me a spoonful of several cultures and I was trying to eat them all at once. Several ethnic communities live side-by-side harmoniously and yet still are so distinguishable in their cultures. A healthy dose of history, art and food in one weekend equals four days well spent.

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