Wednesday, March 19, 2014

One Last Thing about Malaysia

Click the image for larger picture.

When we stayed in very Islamic city of Kota Bharu, our very nice hotel provided us with this stuff.  I'm assuming one packet is shampoo, but not sure what the other is, since the language is Malay.  From looking at the photos, it might be something to wash your head covering with, leaving it shiny, fresh and manageable.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Departure From the Holiest Place in Malaysia

The time approached for us to be at the Low Cost Air Carrier airport outside of Kuala Lumpur so that we could catch our cheapo flight to Hong Kong.  A delightful discovery was that one can fly Air Asia around Malaysia for just a little more than the cost of a bus ride.  Since the bus ride to KL was at least seven hours, and put you downtown, far from the airport, it made sense to fly.
We spent our last night in Kelantan at a very nice hotel that cost the same as the cracker box "low budget" place we stay in Hong Kong, and included an excellent breakfast.  We didn't need to leave for the airport until 3 in the afternoon, which gave us a chance to stroll around seeing the sights and pretend to be British.
At the airport, we were required to send our checked bags through a scanning machine, and noticed that the woman who was supposed to be watching for bombs and such, was busy looking up at a handsome colleague and happily chatting away.  Not the best security.
The flight was uneventful, and we spent the night at a very nice resort style place near the airport.  Flying into the LCC airport, though not impressive, is pretty routine.  Flying out, on the other hand, is less than lovely.  There is no place to sit, and you cannot go past "security" to the waiting area until 45 minutes before your flight.  You don't want to do this anyway, because (I am not making this up) there are no restrooms in the secure waiting area!  Before you go past security, you had better get yourself well drained and evacuated, and hope that your flight is not delayed.  The security at LCC was somewhat better than at Kota Bharu, but still seemed a bit lax.  When the news broke last week about the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, my first thought was to the distracted baggage screener in KB.
We returned to Hong Kong and were greeted with temperatures around 8 degrees Celsius, or mid 40's to you Yanks... oh wait a minute, I'm not British.  Anyway, it was cold and windy and we only had tropic weight clothing and light jackets.  Fortunately, it was cool and sunny the next day when we took the bus back to Zhanjiang, so we could sit on the sunny side of the unheated bus.  I used a beach towel as a blanket, and had 3 short sleeved shirts on and managed to survive.

Here are some random observations and thoughts about our trip: 

  • Good hotels have a decal on the ceiling with an arrow pointing to Mecca, and come with a prayer rug.

Mecca is thataway.

  • Even though Malaysian coffee is excellent, the same good hotels will serve Nescafe from a machine to go with their excellent breakfasts.  I always opted for tea.
  • If you judged Malaysia solely by its taxi drivers, you would think it a nest of thieving, lowlife vipers, and would never return.
  • I wish we had spent more time at the beach.
  • Nearly all the non taxi driving people we met were very nice, helpful, and friendly.
  • Kota Bharu has a supermarket called "The Store".
  • If you buy a sim card for your smart phone, pay the extra for internet.  You will inevitably save money the first time you find you can walk somewhere thanks to your GPS, rather than getting hosed by a taxi.
  • You see the occasional burka.   I saw a guy in a bus station with a Boston T shirt, plaid shorts, and backwards bubba cap.  His wife/sister was dressed like this:
  • I'd fly the long distance trips. It's almost as cheap as the bus and you may encounter lovely, fluffy clouds, which can distract you from pondering the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.  On second thought, the bus is a viable option.  

  • Malaysian vodka is much cheaper than the imported stuff and tastes OK, especially the more of it you consume.
  • I'd buy more spices.  The curry and pepper powders I got were awesome.  I'd also get more tea.
  • Chinese Malaysians seem a lot happier than Chinese Chinese.
  • Boredom is a side effect of a fundamentalist Islamic government.

Excitement in Kelantan:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Call to Prayer and Psychedelic Nun Costumes

Kelantan State is where we did the least amount of interesting things, and yet somehow has made the most profound impression on me.  It's a Muslim country within a country, and this fact is in evidence everywhere.
In other places in Malaysia you may hear the call to prayer from the mosques, depending on your proximity to these houses of worship.  If you are not careful about the location of your hotel, you can be awakened at 5 am by an exotic hymn.  In Kelantan, this prayer is extra special.
At Ian's house, you get a lot of racket all night.  His home is adjacent to thick second growth brushy jungle and tropical creatures abound.  One of these wonders of nature is the carpenter bird, which is nocturnal and has a "song" that sound like a pair of small hardwood sticks being knocked together loudly.  They either do this with their throats, or have managed to develop the ability to knock sticks together.  Either way, when they do this call, it has all the restful qualities of a dripping faucet in a stainless steel sink.  When a bunch of them go at it, it has little appeal at all.  This noise generally ends towards dawn, but not because they stop doing it, but because there are three mosques within sling shot distance of Ian's home and they start their 5 am call to prayer with high volume loudspeakers that drown out the stick music.  This also wakes up the 100 or so roosters in the area, who join in with their own praise to Allah.  Generally the call to prayer is a brief thing, but these mosques must have some kind of competition with each other over who is the most pious, because they go on and on for upwards of 25 to 30 minutes with a tone deaf chanting and moaning trying to outdo the other.  All the while the roosters are contributing their own chorus.  It's a kind of rural/Islamic Karaoke that may or may not please Allah.  He hasn't chosen to smite these people and their numerous fowl , so the safe money is on the Faithful and their righteous yard birds.

Kelantan is geographically isolated from the rest of Malaysia by rugged mountains and so has retained a more pure culture.  There are few non Malay people there, just a scattering of other Asians and virtually no Occidentals.  So virtually all the women are dressed in the Malaysian version of a devout Muslim woman.  Their heads are covered, they have long sleeves and almost always are wearing long dresses, although I did see a few long pants on the more racy ones.  They have managed to make these garments very colorful and the region is world famous for its wonderful fabrics, especially its batik.  Anyone who has an interest in fabric would be well served going to Kota Bharu  and touring the markets.  

Somehow women in this Islamic part of the world have been able to maintain a kind of expression of beauty and femininity that does not exist in the more repressive countries like Saudi Arabia.  

Kelantan is a fundamentalist, religious state with a higher rate of poverty than most of the rest of Malaysia.  In spite of the heavy religious presence there is a lively underground economy involved in gun and drug smuggling.  There were also plenty of layabouts with larcenous tendencies.  These hypocrisies reminded me of someplace, and when we strolled along the wide muddy river in Kota Bharu I realized that this state was a kind of Malaysian Mississippi.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Infidels in Kota Bharu

 Our trip to Kota Bharu was necessary because Ian needed to rendezvous with the regional supervisor for a few minutes.  First we had lunch then went to the marketplace only to discover that the Sabbath is not the optimal day for going to Kota Bharu.  Most of the market stalls where we could shop for all of the marvelous things Kelantan is famous for, were shuttered.  There were a few clothing stores open, featuring colorful batik, and we purchased a shirt for Brian.  The women in the shops were friendly.  They asked us where we were from.  Ian said, "U.K." and they smiled.  We said "U.S." and a few faces lost their smiles.  Hmmm.  
Ian and his boss had chosen the bus station to meet up.  The station is basically a parking lot with a few covered benches, and a small two story building containing a couple of ticket offices and restrooms.  The usual taxi drivers and layabouts approached us asking where we wanted to go.  We said we were waiting for someone.  They still wanted to know where we were going.  We said "Tanah Merah" and they wanted to drive us there.  We said we would take the bus.  One of them said, "No bus there."  (One leaves from the station every 30 minutes).  I guess lying to infidels on the Sabbath is OK.  One of them asked where we were from.  "U.S." elicited some excellent glares.  We began to wonder if perhaps America's adventures in Iraq, perpetual occupation of Afghanistan, and flying killer robot assassination program were causing folks in the Muslim world to think less highly of us.  We decided it might be prudent to fib a bit about our nationalities for the remainder of our time in Kelantan.
Our time at this garden spot was prolonged by the tardiness of Ian's boss.  No show.  For a while.  A while turned into 45 minutes at which time Ian discovered that he forgot to charge his phone.  About 3 nights in a row.  He couldn't call his boss, or receive any calls.  We waited a while.  It was hot.  It was an ugly spot.  Fortunately, the anti American contingent had moved on, so anyone there who asked was informed that we were Brits.  Jolly good!
The boss eventually showed up, although we spent far too much time at this place:
The day was moving past us and we still needed to get a few items for Ian's house, namely something for the guests to sit on.
We took the bus back to Tanah Merah and went into the one stop shopping store that has virtually anything you can buy in Tanah Merah.  The staff was very helpful once they found out we were British, and we purchased a couple of plastic chairs, some great Malaysian coffee, and a few other grocery items.
We then headed for the taxi station, where we found 4 or five one toothed guys laying about and roused one of them off the bench to take us home.  His car was the one with the hood up, and after a few tries, he got it started and took us home for less than the usual rip off fare.  Sabbath prices?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Tanah Merah

Our time in Georgetown was nice.  We went to the lovely botanical gardens, visited our Russian friends who were staying in nearby Batu Ferringhi, and saw only a fraction of what there is to see on the island.
We met a lot of friendly people.  (Locals, I mean.  Tourists need some coaxing to get them to open up.)  I would like return someday.
After a few days it was time  to visit our Welsh friend, Ian.  We had worked together in China.  He left China last year to return home, but had just gotten a job outside of  Kota Bharu, which is in the northeast corner of peninsular  Malaysia, on the Thai border in the state of Kelantan.  He lives in a village outside of Tanah Merah. We booked tickets to Kota Bharu and the bus driver agreed to drop us off at Tanah Merah since we went right through it.
When traveling from the northwest coast to the northeast coast of Malaysia you go over a significant mountain range.  It's a fairly scenic, and curvy ride, and I wanted to enjoy the view, but was somewhat distracted by the lively driving style of the driver.  Eventually the comfortable bus seats overcame my general sense of impending death by bus crash, and I slept for a couple of hours, only to be awoken at our lunch stop near the summit.  Lunch was delicious and was followed by a vigorous descent, which made excellent use of blind, inside corners, and good luck to get us down the mountain in a hurry.  Just as the smell of overheating brakes got strong enough to become a distraction, the road leveled out and became less thrilling.  We were nearing Tanah Merah!  The name sounds so exotic, like Bali Hai.  Unfortunately, in spite of its lovely name, Tanah Merah is not impressive.  It isn't a hell hole.  That might have been impressive.  It's kind of an ordinary, grubby town. The Wikipedia entry pretty much says it all, except that they failed to mention its utter lack of charm.  In fact, I took no pictures.  I found this photo online, and felt it captured the general feel of the place pretty well.
The good part of town.
Ian was waiting for us at the bus "station", which we later found out is an unsheltered concrete and gravel slab a block off the highway.  There is a shack with a laminated sheet of paper with the bus schedule on it, which sets it apart from the vacant lot next door.  Anyway, our driver deemed it a place unworthy to make a detour for, so he dropped us off at a food court on the main street and we rang Ian.  While we were waiting for him to come get us, we were entertained by several dentally challenged locals who were trying to get us to pay them to take us somewhere.  They weren't really taxi drivers, but they had access to a vehicle, and nothing better to do.  We were to discover that hanging around waiting for something to happen seems to be the primary industry there.  
Kelantan state is interesting.  It is very Islamic.  The ruling political party is the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), which is a fundamentalist religious political organization.  From Wikipedia: "For years, PAS has attempted to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Law on Kelantan. It has succeeded in imposing certain social strictures such as single-sex queues in supermarkets; separate public benches for men and women; and limiting entertainment centres to prohibit "salacious behaviour". Proposals to institute punishments such as amputation of limbs for thievery and execution for blasphemy (collectively known as Hudud Law), however, have been blocked by the national government on constitutional grounds."
In other words, don't expect to have much fun in Kelantan.
Since we knew we couldn't buy beer there, we brought a bottle of Malaysian vodka from Georgetown.  Fortunately, there is a Chinese restaurant in Tanah Merah, and they serve beer.  We had some catching up to do, and since we come from secular cultures, we desired alcohol.  It was during this dinner, that we ordered something that we might not have had, had the waiter's English been better.  We wanted some vegetables, and pointed to a picture in the menu of a dish.  We thought the waiter said "beans".  We ordered it.  He meant "bees", or more specifically hornets and their larvae.  Since we were in our cups, and had cheated death on the bus ride over, eating some insects seemed like the right thing to do.  They were delicious, stir fried with citrus, ginger and onions.  Cross eating insects off my bucket list!
We eventually made it to Ian's new home, a nice 3 bedroom house stuck out in a village of sorts about 5 km out of town at the end of a road.  Since he had been there for only a couple of days, it was lightly furnished with a bed, a hammock, and a reclining lawn chair, perfect accommodations for 3 drunk guys. 
At this point I should mention that Ian was lacking not only in furniture, but he had not gotten a car yet.  He had been shopping for one, and had selected one, but was awaiting financing.  We were relying on his supervisor, a pleasant Brit named Alex, for transport around Tanah Merah.  Alex was great company, although his car was a tad small with just enough room for 4 pygmies without luggage.
Kelantan is hot.  It cools off at night, but is damn hot in the afternoon.  The next day we decided to walk to Tanah Merah and catch the bus to Kota Bharu.  We left at noon.  Our five kilometer death march proceeded at a leisurely pace, with stops for water at every roadside place we encountered.  A few empty taxis drove by, but ignored our efforts to flag them down.  Taxi drivers there, while possessing a high degree of larceny, are also by nature, lazy.  The high point of our walk was a roadkill mongoose.  We met a guy along the way who was hanging around waiting for something to happen, and that something happened to be us.  We visited a few minutes then bid him farewell.  A few minutes later, he showed up in the front passenger seat of a car, offering us a ride.  We hopped in, grateful to be out of the sun and off we went.  Of course, this was no Good Samaritan event.  They wanted money, which was OK, except they wanted double what the normal, already exorbitant fare would be.  After some nasty words, we paid them half of what they wanted, and left them with more money than they had 10 minutes before.  We boarded the next bus to Kota Baru and off we went.  It was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath and we were on our way to make the scene in the Capital.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Yallow Roce off Taxass

In Georgetown we had dinner at a giant food court that was packed with Chinese New Year revelers.  They were doing one of the great New Year's traditions:  eating a lot.  Apparently it's also a tradition in Malaysia to dine while a dude, clad in a Hawaiian shirt , with a tiddy boom machine and keyboards, sings the Karaoke hits of Sun City, Arizona.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


After a few interesting events, it was time for us to move on from Ipoh to Georgetown.  A water pipe had broken in the ceiling of Kurt's house on a Sunday.  Since it was a Sunday, the Chinese New Year holiday was still in effect, and it was Malaysia, there was no way to get it fixed.  We wanted to leave the next day and didn't want to travel after an extended period of sweating without a shower, so we booked a room for our last night there.  The hotel was no great shakes, other than having good showers.  It also had OK wifi so that we could watch the Super Bowl.
When you are in Asia, the Super Bowl happens on Monday morning due to the fact that the earth is round and Asia is in the future.  It was important that I see it since it involved my team, the Seahawks, who have never won, and generally have kind of sucked most of the years of their existence.  Not any more!  They trounced the Denver Broncos and their stupid orange uniforms in front of the world and made me almost as giddy as if I was back in the USA swilling beer, gorging myself with incredibly unhealthy food, and surrounded by fellow Seahawk fans.
After the game, we left the hotel (completely sober), for the bus station via pirate taxi.  We managed to get a bus that required only a short wait and that took us all the way into Georgetown.  We were dropped off at modern high rise shopping mall, completely clueless as to our location.  I flagged down another one of those thieving bast cab, and for the price of a dinner for a family of four, he took us on a four minute ride to our hotel.  We could have walked had we any idea as to where we were.  
Our hotel was right on the edge of the historic heritage line and had the usual incredibly helpful staff to assist us in all things touristy.
We really liked Georgetown, or at least the historical area.  It is an incredible blend of cultures mixed into a terrific mess of older buildings, all preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.  There are mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, Church of England, as well as countless shops, cafes, and food courts.
Little India was fun.  Of course there was great food and plenty of shopping.  The air was full of incense and there was always a soundtrack happening. Georgetown's Little India is kind of like going to India without the soul crushing poverty and squalor.

Click the image for larger picture.

We heart Mohammed!

The jail at Fort Cornwallis
Lowlife sociopathic tourist paying his debt to society.

Cruise ship in my sights.

Captain Francis Light, the founder.  But it's really a likeness of his son.  He was either very ugly, or there were no existing pictures of him.

Government Buildings.  

Tibet in Ipoh

Click the pix for larger picture.


Kurt's house is over there.

Ipoh has a Tibetan Buddhist temple.  At least one, there might be more, but we only found this one.  You can see it from Kurt's neighborhood, and I wanted to go see the giant Buddha in the distance.  We were out doing some errands, and went there on a whim, so I didn't have my camera.  I did have my smart phone possessing  above average intelligence with me.  It takes passable selfies to send to people, but doesn't do a place like this justice.
It's eight stories tall. Each level has different features.  Since I'm mostly ignorant of Buddhism, I'll leave it at that.  I think religious scholars might describe it as a very trippy place.  There were very few people there that day, so it was peaceful.  Birds and wasps nested there with impunity.  Here is a selfie.  

See?  The phone does these pretty well.