Currently: Rainy day in Tokyo.
Okay, okay, okay. Sorry I’ve been slacking. I came back from my Malaysia/Singapore trip with a lot of pictures, so I’ve been dreading doing the posting for it, and my general rule is to not post other things until I get rid of my backlog. So I’m breaking up the trip pics into three different posts for your clicking pleasure.
So I was in Malaysia and Singapore in March. I wanted to do some more traveling in Asia beyond Japan, and in choosing my initial venture there were a few things to consider, such as price, whether or not I needed a visa, and ease of travel in-country. The easiest place to fly to is South Korea — Seoul is maybe an hour flight from Tokyo — but Singapore wasn’t much more expensive, I didn’t need a visa for either place, and the bonus is that English is widely spoken in both Singapore and Malaysia (we’ll get into why during the history lesson portion of the blog).
Interesting Note: maybe half the East and SE Asian countries require visas (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia are the ones I can think of off the top of my head). Most every other place (South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines) have an agreement with the US to allow people into their country for a limited time without a visa. Japan is in the latter bunch as well.
The kicker to all this is that a friend of a friend — I’ll call her X — is Malaysian, speaks Malay and Chinese (and English), and offered to be a tour guide for the Malaysia portion of the trip. Sold.
First stop was Kuala Lumpur, the capital and biggest city in Malaysia.
I got there by flying into Singapore from Tokyo, and then from there to Kuala Lumpur (known as KL by just about everyone). Just to forewarn you if you ever fly in Asia: Most economy airlines (in my case, Tiger Air) don’t fly out of the same terminal as the standard airlines (I think this is quite similar to Ryanair in European cities). I mean, it wasn’t a horrible experience by any means, but instead of there being a neato tram going to the budget terminal like it does the other terminals at Singapore Changi Airport, I had to walk through the bowels of Terminal 2 to an underground bus terminal and wait out in the humidity and carbon monoxide for the budget terminal bus, and then stand in line to get my ticket to KL. I guess for a one-way international flight that cost me about US $29 total, I can’t really complain (it was only that much because I opted to pay more for an exit row seat… the advertised ticket price was FREE).
Here’s some things that I saw as I got off the plane, walked to immigration, and out to the airport proper were (in this order):
-The “Welcome to Malaysia” sign, written in 4 different languages: English, Malay (which is written in Latin script), Chinese…and Arabic (did I forget to mention that Malaysia is a major ity-Muslim country?). While this was fascinating for me, the other thought that popped into my head is that there’s a substantial segment of families that I knew growing up in Kansas and Iowa who would have wet themselves seeing that sign.
-Next (after we got indoors, because people flying on budget airlines get to walk on the tarmac in 85 degree, 80% humidity weather) was a Sony Style store and a toy/children’s apparel store where the general theme was ‘Angry Birds’. ‘Angry Birds’ was a recurring theme throughout this trip.
-Down an escalator and you have all the various passenger services. Pre-paid phone cards, ATM machines, etc. All of the ATMs were run by Islamic banks — Islam has a prohibition against charging interest, so they have separate banks who make their money through one-time fees, which pretty much cost the same as charging interest. Go figure.
-Out into immigration, which is a medium-sized warehouse with 6 foot across square pillars going up to the ceiling. Covering these pillars are giant banners warning about human trafficking. Immigration itself, aside from maybe a 10 minute wait in line, was a breeze. The only question they asked was “First time in Malaysia?” *STAMP* “Next!” Much easier than the interrogation I have to go through getting back into my own country every time I come home from traveling abroad. Ugh.
Note: Going in and out of Singapore earlier in the day was even easier because a) Changi airport proper is a lot nicer b) the border agent who let me into Singapore was this attractive Singaporean woman who said my name aloud in what I took to be a very sensual, teasing manner, as if she’d never read the name “Joshua” before but liked it, and finally, c) on the way out of Singapore, they give you candy. You think I’m kidding:
Bad picture, but that’s Changi Airport candy. The border agent (this time an older gentleman) gestured to a basket on the table next to him when I walked up. Candy. At immigration. They have ways of making me talk.
The rest of immigration at KL was easy. I didn’t have any bags to pick up and nothing to declare , so customs was essentially walking by a few customs guards near the door. Out in the arrivals area it’s open-air, which is another theme for this trip. There were a number of coffee shops and a McDonalds. Not really very different at all from your medium sized airport — the actual Kuala Lumpur International Airport is down the street a bit.
While I was waiting to meet X, some Malaysian guy came up to me and said:
Me: “Um, yeah I lived in Texas for a while..why?”
Him: “No, TEKSI”
Me: (realizing that “Teksi” is the Malaysian word for “Taxi”) “Oh….no, I have a ride already, thanks.”
X and I finally met up- she and her friend took me to dinner, and then to my hotel. X recommended I stay outside the city core to minimize commuting hassles, and referred me to a few different hotels that were a little further out. One of them is right next to a major horse racetrack. It’s called the Palace of the Golden Horses and to say that it’s ‘horse themed’ is a bit of an understatement.
After seeing the pictures on their website (linked above), and noting that (at least by American standards) the price was fairly reasonable for a “good hotel” and there really weren’t any other hotels outside the city core that approached its quality, I said “Hey, why not? I’ll splurge a little on the trip, it’ll be a nice place to stay, and I can laugh a little at the audacity of staying at ‘the Palace’.” So I booked a few nights there.
Here’s some pics I took at the Palace. It’s a very nice hotel, although if you are doing the ‘tourist thing’ in KL, it’s not exactly easy to get from there to the touristy areas. But if you are a really big fan of horses, go for it.
You know that comment on Pink Floyd’s The Wall where the girl says “This bathroom is bigger than my apartment”? Yeah. This bathroom had to have been over 100 square feet. All of the shampoo/conditioner, etc bottles were horse-shaped too.
The room was incredibly large. I was disappointed that there wasn’t anything horse-themed on or in the wardrobe on the opposite wall, however. I had to look inside to make sure there wasn’t a horse stowed in there.
Note that even the mirror has horseshoes around the edges. What came to mind for me was the scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich sees through his own mind’s eye and everything and everyone is Malkovich. This hotel is like that, but with horses.
Okay, enough horse-dom (I almost said ‘horsing around’. Aren’t you glad I didn’t?). I was pretty wiped out from traveling and crashed fairly early. The next day X and I took in KL proper. She and her friend came by the hotel to pick me up, and we got dropped off at the nearest light-rail station.
KL has a pretty decent rail infrastructure. Their roads are hopeless mainly because they’ve been growing so fast. Nothing really goes in a straight line. They used to have issues with rail because up until a year or two ago they had a few train lines (one that goes from Singapore through KL to Bangkok up north) and an express line that goes to the airport, 2 different light rail lines, 2 commuter lines, and a monorail line, and they were all different companies with different payment systems. They’ve melded most of those (at least the light rail, commuter, and monorail lines) into one payment system with shared stations (and it’s incredibly cheap to travel around), so honestly the worst part about dealing with mass transit there aside from occasional crowding is the outdoor stations.
This is the Sultan Abdul Samad building, built in 1897. It was named after the Sultan who was in power at the time KL was founded (more on Sultans in a second). It now houses Malaysia’s Ministry of Information, Communications, and Culture.
This is a fountain at Merdeka (Independence) Square, which is across the street from the previous building. This, not surprisingly, is where Malaysia first raised the Malaysian flag in 1957 after gaining their independence from the British. Here’s a (hopefully short) historical recap: Much of south and southeast Asia had been colonized or at least controlled by European forces for hundreds of years. Indonesia used to be the Dutch East Indies. Siam (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the French. Singapore was a British trading post starting in 1819.
Malaysia wasn’t really a unified country until its independence. It had previously been a number of kingdoms ruled by Sultans, many of which had been conquered by each other or by European forces (Portuguese, Dutch, and British). Starting in the 15th Century, some of the Malay leadership converted to Islam, which led to its aggressive spread there. There had also been a massive influx of Chinese and Indian laborers, leading to the multicultural states that Malaysia and Singapore are today. Around the time that Singapore was taken over by the British, they had also conquered several of the other kingdoms on the Malay peninsula, and most of the other kingdoms either ‘chose’ to obey their British ‘advisors’ or deferred to the British. After WWII, where the Japanese had taken over just about all of Southeast Asia and had been particularly brutal to people and captives in Malaysia and Singapore, the Malay people rebelled against the British plan to integrate them into a Crown colony and got their independence. There’s still apparently a lot of bad blood between the ethnic Malays and the Chinese, which occasionally erupts into skirmishes. They just need to remake West Side Story and get over it.
Another picture of Jalan Petaling. I wasn’t really super impressed- there were a lot of closed stalls and it wasn’t very busy. I guess because it was a weekday? Lots of fake merchandise on display, of course.
This is another Buddhist temple down the street, called the Wei Zhen Gong Guan Yin Temple. I took this picture because while the bell is rung from the outside like the Buddhist bells in Japan, the shape is quite a bit different. This is Masjid Jamek. I took this photo from a staircase at a light rail station named after it. Masjid is Malay for ‘Mosque”.
We decided to go down to the ‘city center’ which is the area near the Petronas Towers. It has a 6-floor mall underneath it.
We spent quite a bit of time in this mall, between the mid-day heat and a spot of rain to avoid. The Petronas Towers buildings are connected to the mall, but tickets for the observation deck on the 44th floor were sold out already. We had lunch at the mall, explored the Kinokuniya (a Japanese book store)- I was surprised that it was more or less a normal bookstore, since the ones I’ve been to in Japan and California are overwhelmingly Japan-centric. We decided to stay indoors for a while longer and bought tickets to see a movie- John Carter. The movie wasn’t that bad, but the ticket and concession prices were amazing. Tickets went for 9 ringgit, and I got a medium coke and a medium bag of carmel corn also for 9 ringgit, when its currently 3 ringgit to the US dollar. so a total of 6 bucks for a first-run movie and concessions? Not bad.
This is my “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” shot. The Petronas Towers are named after a rather large oil company in Malaysia, so riding around in the car you see lots of Petronas gas stations. These buildings were the ones that knocked the Sears Tower off the top of the World’s Tallest Buildings list in 1998, but only stayed there for 6 years. They are now the 6th and 7th tallest buildings in the world. They’re taller than the Kuala Lumpur Tower, but because of differences in elevation the observation deck of the latter is higher off the ground.
This is an area near yet another mall. I guess I didn’t really know what to expect from Malaysia but I didn’t really expect this. I think a big part of it is I haven’t done that much traveling abroad, and most of the places I’ve been have been developed countries (Canada, Japan) or kinda weird situations (2 of the Mexico border towns, the Soviet Union). I guess I wasn’t expecting Kuala Lumpur to be as modern as it is. But I guess considering the city itself is relatively new and there’s been so much economic development there, it’s not too surprising.
Next three pics are the other mall where we walked around. You can see the Petronas Towers peeking out in the second picture. There was a Carl’s Jr in the food court. Not exactly what I was expecting to see in Kuala Lumpur.This was an outdoor food center between the mall and the light rail station. Kind of a more traditional food area. We didn’t partake. We took the bus from Kuala Lumpur (toward the center of Malaysia and inland) a few hours down to Malacca where X lives (it’s right on the Straits of Malacca, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Pacific). A pic of the bus we rode in to Malacca.
I would have liked to spend another day or so in Kuala Lumpur to see a few more sites, but in all it was a nice day in a really interesting city. More pics to come…