Monday, January 27, 2014

Malaysia: Truly Asia

Here I am in The Restoran Tong Juan digesting my stuffed crab, fried rice, and mixed vegetables that I washed down with the first beer I’ve had since I stepped foot in Malaysia. Next to me there are two tables full of Indians getting their hands dirty with seafood, drinking beer as well. Behind them a few Chinese families eating dinner with a pot of green tea, and a delightfully friendly young Muslim waitress hustling and bustling around serving everyone.  Back in my hotel room run by a Muslim family, there is a Chinese calendar on the wall with a picture of the Vatican.  Now that is Malaysia, truly Asia (it's the government's cheesy tourism slogan, not mine)!
Have to try the local specialties even though crab isn't my favorite.
Malaysia; It’s a fascinating country!  They are getting ready to celebrate The Chinese New Year in a few days and there are Chinese lanterns and lights decorating all the bigger towns I come across.  In the background I can hear call to prayer on the speakers of one of the many Masjids in town and along the roads.  Malaysia mosques are everywhere, like the car washes I came across in Vietnam and the “Volcanizers” in Bosnia.  There are 3 radically different cultures that peacefully share this country called Malaysia.
Chinatown in Georgetown, Penang

Around the corner from Little India

Across the street from Colonial buildings......

Signs here are in Malay and English predominantly but sometimes they will be written in three or four languages, including Chinese and Arabic as well.  People are bilingual and trilingual naturally, but English is commonly spoken acting as a “liason language” between the distinct cultures.  At most restaurants you can find local Malay food, Chinese noodle, soup, and rice dishes, Indian curries, and even Thai and Indonesian specialties.  Muslims don’t drink coffee, but they serve it at all their restaurants along with milk tea, unfortunately the same isn’t true for alcohol (you have to go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant for that)!

You have to try Roti Canai, especially if a local is treating you!

Imagine a country that has Indian and Chinese temples intermixed, and mosques and their minarets can be found in all directions.  Yes, they observe all the sacred holidays for each of the religions, making for, A LOT of public holidays! For Muslims, Friday is the religious day, yet in some towns I still saw kids at school on Friday.  In other towns, school was in session on a Sunday, making it hard to decipher which day of the week it actually is?!?! In Georgetown, Penang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chinatown runs into Little India as Bollywood music can be heard from the doors of the Chinese temple nearby, which is across the street from the old British colonial town and city hall.  Fascinating!!!  In Penang, the geograhpy is just as diverse as the culture, simulating a mini-Malaysia.  You have dense rainforest jungles and tall peaks in the interior and pristine white sandy beaches lining the entire perimeter of the island.  Three hours away by ferry is Langkawi, a beach resort paradise, that still isn't too overrun with tourism.

Sunset on the beach where I camped in Langkawi

In the end, I decided to cycle down the eastern side of Malaysia hoping it would be less developed and transited.  This country has plenty of coastline and flat plains.  About 60% of the peninsula is below 100 meters, so I had to go out and find that 40% above and crossed the mountains 100% of the way to arrive on the eastern side of the country. I’m thankful I made the effort and grueling climb to come over because there aren’t as many big cities on this side, which makes for less traffic, although the cultural diversity is lacking compared to the west.  Muslims populate the eastern coast more than other cultures and most of the little villages scattered along the coast are fishing villages.  In the few and far between bigger towns you find more Chinese and Indians, resembling the mix that I found in Penang.  The white sandy beaches lined with palm trees go on for kilometers without a single inhabitant.  Last night I watched the sunset from the terrace of my guesthouse that backed up to the beach and there wasn’t anyone else around enjoying the same splendid sight.  I feel a lot less uncomfortable taking a dip in these ocean waters with my cyclist tan lines than elsewhere. 

Small Muslim fishing village on Malaysia's east coast
Cities are hardly cities over here on the east coast, if you compare them to the hustle and bustle on Penang or Kuala Lumpur (although I didn’t cycle through the latter), yet they have everything a cyclists needs: local day and night markets, food stalls and restaurants, and basic hotels. I had a hard time figuring out the hotels in Malaysia.  They advertise “homestays”, “guesthouses”, and “chalets” on the side of the road, yet when you roll up they are deserted.  I was getting excited to stay with a local family for the night, but I realized they aren’t homestays as westerns would think. Homestays are equivalent to our vacation rentals that usually need reserving in advance.  Hotels in general are more expensive here, but they haven’t gotten any nicer!  That is really my only complaint with this country, the lack of decent budget accommodations that you find in other SE Asian countries.  Unfortunately and obviously, you don’t have the hourly Nga Nghis that were so frequent in Vietnam.  Yesterday my eyes lit up with joy as I saw signs for Rose’s Bed & Breakfast.  I searched high and low in the neighborhood and couldn’t find anything that resembled a B&B.  I went to a restaurant nearby, and the men there all looked baffled and pointed in different directions.  Then one invited me to stay with his brother,…I passed on that option.

I can’t believe I only have 4 days left in Malaysia and a week in SE Asia.  There are so many places I’d still love to see and delicious food to try.  Just yesterday I discovered ABC’s, now that is an easy name to remember.  Iced coffees don’t cut it here, but this is a substitute and along with their milk tea.  I’m still loving the beverages at my pit stops.

An ABC,...don't konw where the name comes from it is shaved iced with all sorts of jelly goodies, syrup, condensed milk and sweet corn,.....basically pure sugar!!!!
I’ve just added Penang to my list.  What list, you might ask?!?!  You’ll have to wait for another blog where I shed light on the places I could see myself living after I finish this loong journey home.

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