Friday, 7 August 2015

Malaysia

From Singapore the next stop was Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. As Singapore is an island we caught the bus over to Johor Bahru in mainland Malaysia where, after passing through customs, caught a connecting bus to Kuala Lumpur. The difference in countries was obvious as soon as we crossed over. Malaysia is still more developed than I had expected, with a lot of western influences, but the edges were abit messier and the appearance a little more dilapidated. We reached Kuala Lumpur to find the heat was just as stifling as we had recently experienced elsewhere so when we finally found our hostel after lugging 20kg of baggage around, it was like a mirage emerging out of the desert.

Right next door to the hostel was the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman temple, the oldest in Kuala Lumpur. For the next hour or so we wandered barefoot amongst the devout, curiously watching the ritual and routine of deity worship and prayer. Several smaller shrines circling the main prayer hall which was bustling as a puja, or service, was about to begin. Watching from a respectful distance, soles of feet pointing away from the spiritual alter, we saw how the priests brought fire, water and coloured paste around to the congregation who in turn wafted the flame towards them, drank then tipped drops of water on their heads and smeared the paste on their foreheads. I cant claim to understand any of the religious meanings of these rituals, however it was a sight to behold, all to the soundtrack of traditional Hindu music.

Although we were staying in Chinatown there was an incredibly noticeable Indian presence and so in preparation to our adventures in India itself we found a cafe where we bumbled along with the staff to order some food. In broken english they assured us that none of the buffet choices were spicy... however even before the first mouthful had been swalled a wall of heat hit my tastebuds and knocked them for six! The food was delicious but I really struggled with the heat and the ensuing consequences eg the dreaded runny nose!! I felt as if my brain had been sizzled so in a subdued, full tummy haze we ambled back to the hostel where we relaxed for the rest of the evening, chatting with other guests and reading our books. No one ever said the backpacking life was rock and roll!

KL's main draw is the glass and steel Petronas Towers which stand at almost 452m and are a representation of Malaysias vision to be a global power. On the walk there I was expecting to find just two twin towers, take a quick photo then go off elsewhere to explore the city. However when we got there I was pleasantly surprised to find that the towers are not only offices and apartments but a social hub of community with a vast landscaped garden, water features, open-air swimming pool and sprawling indoor shopping centre. Infact, the only hint towards the companies oil and petrol presence in the industry was the two Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 cars suspended in the foyer.

I had succumbed to the heat so hopped on the Light Rapid Transit public transport system and was soon back in Chinatown just in time to beat the thundering showers which came down in the afternoons almost as regular as clockwork providing a light relief as it dampened the muggy weather.

KL is a melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures and the source of some of the best food in the country however there is only so much eating that can be done and with only a few sights to be seen, one full day was enough for us.

The following day we boarded a bus heading for the island of Penang located off the northwest coast of the mainland. The draw of the 'Pearl of the Orient' is its ability to embrace modernity whilst retaining its traditions and old world charm as the East meets West. The capital, Georgetown, has recently been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and was our base for the next few days.

A long hot bus journey does nothing for the spirit of exploration and so with our energy sapped we didnt do much that afternoon. In the evening, a handful of bicycle-come-foodstalls, called hawkers, set up camp right near our hostel offering so many mouth-watering chinese delights. Many stalls only sell one dish and often it is recipe-less, having been passed down from generation to generation; this is the sort of thing we love, to really get under the skin of a place and get involved with local life!

First course (!) was Char Kwey Tiaw or fried noodles in soy sauce with egg and seafood. Literally within minutes our chef, a little old lady who spoke no english, had thrown all those ingredients in a sizzling wok where she worked her magic and served the steaming dish to us, as we sat on plastic chairs by the side of the road as is typical of this kind of dining. (It may sound abit grungy but when the food is fresh and its a popular haunt with locals and tourists, you can usually trust your delicate digestive system with it!)
Mastering the art of chopsticks we wolfed down what would be our first course, paid the measly delightfully cheap bill then went off for something more to satisfy us - as all the food is alot lighter than that of Western proportions, it is easier to eat more without feeling quite so guilty about your waistline!
Our next dish was Popiah which are like spring rolls, only with a lighter casing and filled with shredded vegetables, soya noodles, peanuts and spicy sauce. A crunchy taste sensation! Sometimes it is difficult to know what it is that you're ordering, with no english translation or picutes for help, but my culinary horizons have been broadened because of trying something completely strange and new!

The next day we caught the bus across the island to Penang National Park which lines the sandy shores of the island. The ultimate destination was Monkey Beach, so called because of the crab-eating Macaques that live here. It turns out that they dont just eat crabs. As we were following the trail, a troop of around 15 monkeys blocked our way and began making threatening noises. As there were babies clinging to their mothers, I knew that the animals would be territorial so threw down my bag and retreated to a safer distance. As soon as I'd cleared some space a couple of them pounced and ripped the plastic bag to shreds, stealing my oranges and scampering off... now i know where the 'cheeky monkeys' phrase comes from!!
As soon as we'd resumed walking a lizard, probably 1.5-2m in length, crossed our path to ensure I was satisfactorily freaked out! Needless to say I didnt make the full hour-long walk through even denser jungle to Monkey Beach, but settled for the next open sandy spot available with just enough distance between me and the wildlife! We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach with the sound of the ocean as our soundtrack. 

We went back to Penang later that day and realised we'd gotten a little bit burnt under the hazy, Malaysian sun - not ideal!! That evening we walked down the esplanade where we ate overlooking the bay then went to a exhibition in the park dedicated the the Transformers film. It was quite a random discovery but interesting none the less!

The next day we were leaving but not until the evening so decided to explore the city. Georgetown is the canvas for Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic official street art which is increasing in popularity since it was first commissioned in 2012. Some of the work even incorporates real-life three dimensional props such as 'Brother and Sister on a swing" where the children are painted on to the wall, yet the swings are real. This is an interesting concept and one that gathers the crowds and gets them involved in the art work.

Penang is not as I had expected; I had pictured high rises crammed onto an island, as an extension of Kuala Lumpur but despite it being an economic hub it has a small-town feel to it and one that compliments the beaches, food, culture and lifestyle it offers. A must-do if you are ever that way on in the world!!