I ended my vacation with a relaxing couple days on the beaches of the Perhentian Islands. I went to the smaller island, Pulau Perhentian Kecil, where I stayed in a dorm room with a group of other backpackers. It was the first time I my trip that I got hang out with people my own age. We snorkelled in the tourquoise water, drank on the beach, and soaked up the sun.
Sunburned after my day on the beach in Cherating, I decided a retreat to the forest was in order. Taman Negara, a national park, is one of the oldest rainforests in the world and one of Malaysia's biggest attractions. So, after a taxi ride from Cherating to Kuantan, a bus ride to from Kuantan to Temerloh, a bus ride from Temerloh to Jerantut, a speedy cab ride from town to the dock, an angry cab ride back to town because there was no accommodation available near the dock, a few phone calls to book a tour, and an overnight at a hotel in Jerantut, I was finally en route.
I booked a tour through the hotel I stayed at in Jerantut, and the man who booked the tour for me, Addy, also turned out to be my guide. He and his friend drove me to the park in their card, speeding the whole way. Despite the sharp corners, wild passes, near-miss with a bus, and interesting maneuver where the driver lit a cigarette as he steered with his knees, we made it to the boat in one piece. We met up with the others members of our group: a French family with two children, aged 5 and 8, and an older German man who was also travelling alone.
The tour started with a boat ride down the river, and the view was fantastic. I, unfortunately, didn't learn my lesson in Cherating and added some more colour to my legs. The forest, at the start of our hike, was similar to those in Canada, with ferns, big trunks, and open skies. Four kilometres in, we stopped at a small cave for a meal break. My backpack, although emptied (I left most of my clothes in storage at the hotel), was heavy due to the three litres of water I was carrying, and my shoulders craved a rest. After the break, we continued on our way to the big cave, where we would spend the night.
The landscaped quickly changed; it began to look more like a rainforest. The undergrowth became thicker, the canopy above closed up, and the sun disappeared. I saw "Tarzan vines" that, for me, identify a true rainforest. The hike was difficult. There were lots of downed trees on the path that we had to pass over and under, and our footwork was further complicated by the mud.
The day was supposed to be long but easy, but having two young children in our group made the day even longer, and I certainly didn't find it easy. "This area has many tigers," Addy said when the sun started going down. "We must arrive before dark or..." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't need to.
We got out our flashlights and soon they became a necessity. It wasn't until 7.30 that we finally arrived the big cave—and, boy, was it big! There were several groups already there, but there was plenty of room for all of us. Addy made dinner for us while we relaxed on the mats and talked. After dinner, we went outside to a nearby stream to brush our teeth and "shower"—the whole time I was checking for animals with my flashlight. Soon, all the flashlights were turned off and we all settled in for a night of camping in a cave.
I woke up to sunlight streaming through the cave opening. It was one of those scenes that make you think, Wow. This is why I travel. With the sunlight, I got a good look at the cave. It was one big "room" that was about 40 metres tall and could handle about 300 people at a time. There were two openings: the bigger, higher one (near where we slept), which was almost at the ceiling, and a smaller one to the left that served as the main "door." A big rock sat in the middle and divided the room; people used to rock for privacy when it came to changing clothes and using the "toilet" facilities. Someone, somehow, managed to put a Malay flag high up on the cave wall. It smelled of dampness, fire ashes, and moss inside the cave. I loved every minute of it.
During breakfast—bread with Malay jam: coconut with egg—Addy told me he couldn't sleep because he thought he heard animals. "I thought I heard animals during the night, too," I said. "It sounded like bats to me."
"Not bats," Addy said. "I think tigers."
After talking with the other guides, Addy seemed convinced tigers were out last night. I doubted it, but the idea certainly added some excitement to our upcoming hike through the woods. Since it rained during the night, mud would be more of a problem, plus leeches would be out, and maybe tigers, too.
The day was supposed to be shorter but more difficult than the day before, and the difficulty part was certainly true. The hike was a challenge. The mud was a mess, twigs scratching my legs burned my rosy legs, and there was always something to crawl over or squeeze under. We crossed rivers on fallen logs, and trailblazed our way through thick underbrush. Biting pain on my ankles or spots of blood on my shorts alerted me to that fact that leeches had decided to join me on the hike. It was so much fun. But, with two small children, the day was not short. The little girl, aged 5, had a lot of problems, so her dad carried her as much as he could. We took a lot longer—maybe twice as long—as we could have without the kids. I didn't mind, though; I liked being in the woods.
They say travel is about the journey, not the destination. But sometimes the journey is long, boring, and frustrating.
I spent the evening on a bus from Singapore that would take me to Kuantan, Malaysia. It was an uncomfortable ride; I've never understood why buses need to be as freezing cold as they always are.
In the middle of the night, the bus pulled up in front of a fancy hotel and told me to get off. After handing me my backpack, they drove off, leaving me confused and very angry. This most certainly was not the bus station I imagined. I was informed there was no room for me at the hotel, which was fine because I never would have been able to afford it anyways. The hotel guard gave me a chair and I sat down next to him at the gate, wondering what the heck I was supposed to do now.
Some time later, a van pulled up. "Let me ask my friend," the guard said. The van driver could take me to the bus station in Kuantan, the guard said, so that I could get a bus and meet my friend in Cherating on time (the story I told the guard instead of admitting I was on my own). After thinking about the situation for a minute (like I always do before getting into a vehicle with a stranger), I decided it should be okay and I got in.
The bus station was big. The gravel parking lot I was standing in was filled with big white tents and some red and yellow taxis. The station in front of me was a two-story building with blue- and white-tiled platforms underneath and the waiting area up above. It was still dark and the platforms were all empty. A sign that read "Kounter Tiket" directed me upstairs, where lots of people were waiting for their buses and sleeping on the wooden benches. It was cluttered, and it certainly wasn't clean. One wall was lined with ticket booths, but they were all closed. Besides that, I didn't see "Cherating" on any of the signs.
I found an empty spot on a bench and decided to settle in. A young man beside me said hello and we talked for a bit. When I told him where I was going, he told me to wait until 7 (then still over an hour away) before looking for tickets. I tried to make myself comfortable and prepare myself for the long wait.
I was half-asleep when a station worker called up from the platforms below. I imagined he was talking about the arrival of a bus, but of course I really had no idea. He came up to the waiting area and the young guy beside me exchanged a few words with him. He told me to follow the older man downstairs, so I grabbed my bag and headed off, excited I might be on my way soon.
But when I got downstairs, I was told that I was at the wrong bus station; this was the long-distance station and I needed to go to the local one. Of course, a taxi driver was more than happy to drive me there. Frustrated, I refused, instead wanting to walk myself there with the hopes that the walk would calm me down.
I got directions and started off. Right, then left, straight through the lights, then right again---simple enough, right? But before I even made my first turn I realized I shouldn't be doing this. 1) I suck at directions in general, 2) I couldn't see where the first turn was, 3) I'm alone, 4) I'm in Malaysia, and 5) it's still dark. I turned around and, with a sheepish look on my face, went back to the taxi driver.
He seemed irritated I didn't go with him the first time he offered. In fact, he told me so. While we drove, I noticed we weren't going the way he had told me to talk, so I asked him where we were going. He got angry and started yelling at me. "Why don't you trust me?" he said. "Why do you keep asking me? It's a one-way street so I have to go around!" I could see that this taxi ride would do nothing to cheer me up.
The local bus station turned out to be nothing more than a gravel square with two very old looking buses parked at one side. There was an open-air restaurant at the back of the station, the kind of restaurant with plastic chairs and tables and food in plastic bowls covered in saran-wrap. Two women were wiping down the tables and washing the dishes, getting ready for their day to begin. I wasn't hungry, so I spent my time watching mice scurry across the gravel as the sun started rising.
Finally my bus pulled up. I paid a couple ringgits to the driver and sat down. The bus, like the ones in the parking lot, was old; it's dark blue paint was weathered and the seats were grey and tattered. I had no idea when I was supposed to get off, but that didn't stop me from nodding off to sleep. The ride was long; we stopped at the side of the road to pick up more passengers dozens of times. When I got on the bus was almost empty, but soon most of the seats were taken. I tried to look at the landscapes we passed and watch the local scene outside my window, but I kept falling asleep.
Some time later, I realized I missed my stop, but, without knowing where I was or what I was doing, I just kept going. Eventually we passed under an archway across the road that read "Terengganu" so I thought we had driven all the way to the city of Kuala Terengganu. Really, we just crossed into the province, but I didn't learn this until we stopped at another big bus station and I started walking towards what I thought was the city centre. I was tired, sweaty, hungry, and completely lost.
I spotted a small hotel at the side of the highway and decided to ask for directions to a Terengganu hotel I read about in my guide book. As it turns out, I was in Kemaman, a much smaller city still a far distance from KT. They called me a taxi to take me to Cherating.
At 9.30am, I checked into a hotel in Cherating. After nearly twelve hours of buses, bus stations, taxis, and adventures on foot, I had finally arrived.
If I had to describe Singapore in one word, it would be "clean." Or "colourful." Or maybe "charismatic."
My day in Singapore started on Orchard Road, Singapore's shopping paradise. I arrived early---too early, in fact, to shop in any of the malls, as none of the stores were open yet. That, I decided, was a good thing. The malls on Orchard Road there for the trendy rich folks, not for a cheap backpacker like myself. I spent some time walking up the length of the road, dipping into some of the malls for some relief from the hot August sun.
I thought about making my way to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, but it was way too hot. I instead took a bus to somewhere in the downtown area and walked around. I was immediately impressed with the city: it was so clean and organized. (Many people describe Singapore as the "least Asian city in Asia"---said negatively---because it's so unusually clean and organized.) The charming buildings were coloured in a rainbow of pastels, looking as if they belonged in the Walt Disney version of colonial America. I noticed a lot of construction, but even that seemed quieter and cleaner than I was used to. Where was the dirt and general disorganization that defeats other cities? Yep, I was already in love with this city.
In the early afternoon, I made my way to the urban planning exhibit at the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The Authority has a display of their Draft Master Plan for the city of Singapore and I wanted to take a look at it. (Now would be a good time to mention that I majored in Human Geography in university. Urban planning is something I studied a lot over those four years---though I imagine visiting such an exhibit is still a really dorky thing to on vacation.)
Basically, the plan has four key aspects: improving the living environment, strengthening the city's position as "global business hub," maintaining Singapore's heritage and character, and adding more parks and leisure spaces. Each region in the city-state has its own plan that encompasses these four elements. Okay, this sounds boring, but it wasn't---at least, not to me. There were videos, models, drawings and photos, and clear descriptions for everything. I spent a couple hours going through it all and really liked what I saw; there was a real focus on nature and efficient use of space and resources. I could definitely see myself living in Singapore, I thought.
When I finally pulled myself outside, back into the sunshine, I walked myself over to the Asian Civilisations Museum near the Singapore River. There was a great exhibit about Vietnam, a place I visited with my brother just six months ago. I joined a tour group and learned a lot, not only about Vietnam, but the people of Asia as a whole.
I finished my tour of the city with a boat trip along the Singapore River, passing by colourful quays and seeing the famous Merlion at Merlion Park. The Merlion is a cultural symbol of Singapore, reflecting the original name for the island, Singapura, meaning "Lion City." The name was given by Prince Sang Nila Utama of the Sri Vijaya Empire, who, upon landing on Singapore's shores, saw a large animal that he later learned was a lion. The fish body represents Singapore's beginnings as a small fishing town.
After a cheap and delicious dinner at a street restaurant, a new pair of Birks and a pedicure to get my feet ready for the beach, and a beer at a Chinese kareoke bar, I was back on a bus, headed back up north to Malaysia.
You can take public transit to get to Orchard Road. Check out this website for info on bus numbers and train stations.
To check out the awesome visit the gallery at the Urban Redevelopment Authority for free Monday-Saturday. It's located near the Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown MRT stations.
The Asian Civilisations Museum is a 5 minute walk from the Raffles Place MRT station.
My first few days in KL were spent mostly on my feet. I love walking around cities; I feel more connected to the place, as if by walking I become part of the landscape instead of simply looking at it. As Paul Scott Mowrer wrote in his autobiography, The House of Europe, "There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast." I read that the city wasn't built with walkers in mind, but I had no problem marching my way through the city. Armed with only a basic map, care of my Lonely Planet, I made a number of wrong turns and a few mad dashes across roads that were busier than I would have liked, but I found my daily strolls to be quite enjoyable. The first thing I wanted to do was ride the monorail. Very Gotham City, I wrote in my notebook. Watching as the buildings and streets passed by below me, I rode the rail towards the Butterfly Park. After the monorail ride, walking for a while, getting lost, and eventually taking a taxi, I finally made it there.
At first the park seemed empty, but finally I started spotting them. I usually saw their shadows first, then used those to find the butterflies they belonged to. There were butterflies so big they looked like paper birds, and others that were so colourful they glowed.
The park had a small museum that I wandered though. The shadow boxes of spiders caught my attention, and I took some time to study the locations of the various spiders throughout Malaysia. I noted that, of the 19 shown, 11 (including three tarantulas and one "giant-sized" bird spider) are found in the Cameron Highlands. Note: Cameron Highlands can be missed if I'm running out of time! I wrote. To get my mind off the spiders, I checked out a shadow box labelled: World's Most Beautiful Butterflies. Most of the butterflies were a metallic, luminescent blue and were absolutely stunning---definitely deserving to be on the list.
The perk of travelling alone is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Could I go to a butterfly park and a bird park on the same day? Of course I could. And I did.
The next day, I woke up early to get to the Petronas Towers. There's only a limited number of tickets every day to the Skybridge on the 41st floor---the highest level visitors can go---so arriving early was a must. There was already a line when I arrived and the wait was long. When I finally made it to the booth, the tickets were being sold for the 11.45 elevator ride---2 hrs later. Though, when I stated I only needed one ticket, they bumped me to the last ticket for the 10.15. Another score for the solo traveller.
The towers were more beautiful than I had noticed before. Each floor is wrapped with silver beams---practical in that they shade the windows from direct sunlight, and beautiful in that they look like ribbons. The shape of the towers themselves are also very symbolic. They were originally designed to be 8-point stars, called Rub el Hizb, which look like two overlapping squares. This shape is a very important symbol in Islamic culture, prevalent in Malaysia. Extra circular sections were added in between points to add floorspace, but the symbolism is still clear. At 170 metres, the Skybridge is half the height of the CN Tower's glass floor and observation level, but the view was impressive anyways. I love seeing cities from above, where you can see everything happening all at once.
Up, down, and out of the towers, I headed to the bus station to find a bus south to Singapore.
There's a place not far away
Different faces yet all the same
With a million dreams in one golden celebration (Malaysia)
Come and spread your wings
There's so much to see
There's a million colours right before your eyes
It's time to celebrate
One golden celebration
Malaysia truly Asia
Malaysia truly Asia
Malaysia celebrated its 50th year of Independence in 2007 and the commemorative tourism TV commercials were still playing in Korea well into 2008. The song from theses ads was quite catchy; it seemed as though no one could say "Malaysia" without adding "truly Asia" afterwards. Emails from friends read, Have fun in Malaysia Truly Asia! or, So how is Malaysia Truly Asia? I never thought of it as more than an ad campaign---until I arrived in Malaysia, that is.
I was picked up from the airport by a new friend who I only recently found out was Malaysian. He took me to a small outdoor restaurant where I met three of his co-workers and enjoyed a snack under the cool midnight moon. Over "pull tea" and crepe-like pancakes, he introduced me to Malaysia's unique and diverse cultures.
There are three major ethnic groups in Malaysia (Indian, Chinese, and Malay) as well as several traditional ethnic groups. It's not easy balancing the needs of all these different cultures in one country. "Malays of Chinese background say they're Chinese, not Malaysian," my friend said. "Malays and Indians are represented in government, but there's not so much Chinese representation, so Chinese-Malays don't feel Malaysian."
Over the next few days, when I was walking and riding though KL, I was impressed by the mixture of people. Unlike Korea, in which everyone has black hair, black or dark brown eyes, and white skin, I was suddenly surrounded by a potporri of people---dark-skinned Indians, Buddhist or Taoist Chinese, scarf-wearing Malays---who not only looked different but also spoke different languages and practiced different religions.
My friend told me that the Indians, Chinese, and Malays were about equal, each taking a third of the population. Travelling around the city, that estimation seemed realistic. But Malays actually form the biggest ethnic groups with about half the population, while the Chinese-Malays account for roughly 25% and Indian-Malays roughly 10%. Malay is the official language, which all students must study in school even if the primary language at the school itself is Chinese or English. Islam is the official and predominate religion, but Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and other religions are also practiced in large numbers.
The diversity couldn't be overlooked; it wasn't long before I realized that "Malaysia Truly Asia" was more than a slogan. No, it's not perfect and the groups don't always get along, but Malaysia, in all its varieties, is Asia---truly.
I was looking out the plane window when I saw them for the first time. Even thousands of feet below, they still looked tall. They stood there, two silver towers, illuminated in the dark of night with a white glow in a sea of orange street lights. It was my first trip all by myself---something I wouldn't have even considered doing just six months ago.
For years, I've been hearing how travelling alone is one of the greatest experiences. It's the ultimate freedom, they say, of going where you want to go and doing what you want to do, whenever you want to do it. I, however, disagreed. It's just lonely. A few years ago, when I was living in Ghana, I couldn't even last a whole weekend by myself. I remember bolting back to Accra in the middle of the night because I couldn't bear spending another night alone.
Part of me, though, realized at some point I would have to learn how to be comfortable travelling solo. I mean, could I really be considered an adventurer if I've never ventured off alone? I'm not sure what changed in me, but, for whatever reason, when I discovered I was sans travel buddy for my summer vacation, I just shrugged and told myself, well I guess it's time.
And so I found myself looking down at the Petronas Towers from the plane, about to land in Kuala Lumpur for the start of my first solo adventure. Just me, myself, and Malaysia.