Around Asia Chapter 3: Penang

After a few days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s skyscraping capital and renowned center for sidewalk rodent-punting, we boarded a bus for the island of Penang.

I say island, and I know according to mapmakers and the planet Earth, Penang is indeed one, but it didn’t really feel like an island to me. Penang is massive and since we arrived via a 13 kilometer-long suspension bridge, I thought Penang had more the persona of a coastal city than an island. But hey, that’s just me.

We had heard nothing but great things about Penang beforehand and arrived excited to embrace the culture, the history, the landscapes, and the people. There I go completely making stuff up again – the only things we knew about Penang going in was that it was known for having great street food and was home to some old buildings worth taking pictures of.

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The part of Penang where the great street food and the old buildings worth taking pictures of are located in is called Georgetown, and that is where we ended up staying.

We got a little turned around finding our guesthouse on the way in to town, but were directed down the right street by a friendly older Western lady, who seemed like she lived there. She was more than glad to help us, and busted out the directions with the speed and sharpness of someone who, as an expat, probably ends up shepherding turned-around buffoons on a very regular basis.

Penang was a bit of a strange stop for us. Sadly, since the entire internet had been collectively beating their chest and howling from the trees about how great it was, a bit of a letdown was inevitable. We enjoyed it, we just weren’t about to start beating our chest and howling from trees about how great the place was.

Our experience with the food of Penang was good, but nothing earth shattering. If I recall correctly (I definitely do, I’m just being dramatic), we may have (we did) ended up at a Pizza Hut one night because the street stalls choices were a bit underwhelming (they were fine, we just wanted a stuffed crust pizza).

Penang

There were indeed pretty buildings to take pictures of, many of them were clustered around a cute little area called Love Lane. I immediately took the name Love Lane to be a sign that Penang is an enclave for freespirited hippy types, but apparently no one really knows how the street got its name. Theories range from Love being somebody important’s surname to the street once being home to a bevy of brothels.

Regardless, the name Love Lane fits the little place like a glove.

Seeing Penang’s chalk white colonial-era buildings butted up against colorful temples was a thrill for sure, and further hammered home that we had really arrived in Asia. At times, Kuala Lumpur had felt like a step into the future, but Penang definitely felt like a lean back to the past.

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After being attracted by a trail of incense smoke, we popped into a temple one day and observed something called a ceremony, which definitely felt like the kind of thing we went travelling for in the first place.

Like I said, we had a good time in Penang, but for the most part, the only thing earth shattering to happen during our stay was when the earth nearly shattered.

Yep, they had an earthquake while we were there.

While Missouri is certainly never going to be confused with California or anywhere else on the Ring of Fire, any Missourian worth his or her salt, which I pretend to be by the way, is bizarrely proud to boast about the fact that the New Madrid Fault is located in our fair state.

New Madrid Fault? Oh, you didn’t know? That’s right, the New Madrid Fault is responsible for some of the biggest earthquakes in the history of the United States, one that even made the Mississippi River flow backwards.

Take that, San Andreas.

In fact, one of the strongest memories I have of my youth, involves the New Madrid Fault. A cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs scientist named Iben Browning made a bold prediction that a huge earthquake was going to strike on or around December 3rd, 1990. The media in the Midwest picked up on it and the whole region was a buzz with his fruity forecast. At school, kids were teetering between being afraid the world was about to end just before Christmas and excited for a potential Earthquake Break from classes.

Of course nothing happened, but the preceding hoopla will always be etched in my memory.

We really didn’t even feel the earthquake on Penang, but were alerted to the fact that it happened by some locals who had all come out to the street to swap stories of dishes shaking (it’s always dishes, isn’t it?).

Once back in our guesthouse after chatting with them though, there was a bit of nervous shaking on the internet about a possible tsunami headed our way after the earthquake. In the space of 15 minutes, I read everything online from the dire “run for your lives!” to the genteel advice of “swimming in the sea is not recommended at this time”.

The tsunami ended up being mostly internet hype, and hey, wait a minute, I suppose that’s a fitting way to describe our time in Penang.

Around Asia Chapter 2: Arriving in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Batu caves

Was Malaysia a bit of an unusual place to start an Asian adventure? Maybe.

Most people do tend to say that Thailand and Singapore are the best places to get your feet wet in Asia, but we had it on very good authority that Malaysia was home to a spellbinding combination of arts, culture, and history. Oh, who do I think I’m kidding, it was the food.

Being a melting pot of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, Malaysian cuisine is regarded as one of the most tantalizing in the world according to at least two slideshows that we had seen online.

We had arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the wee hours of the morning and as thus had to wait for the first train of the day from the airport into the city. I was really hoping to see some monkeys swinging from trees or better yet, throwing coconuts at the train, but since it was still dark out, there was no funny business. Instead, we were treated to an unending loop of the trailer for the latest Let’s Step Up And Do Dance Moves movie and by time we reached our end destination could recite it word-for-word. Incidentally, we never ended up seeing the film, so if anyone out there knows if those kids ended up winning the big Las Vegas competition, please get in touch.

Eventually, we arrived at our station and emerged into the muggy Malaysian morning. In keeping with local custom, we each made an obligatory observation about the humidity level and how you could cut it with a knife, then slashed our way through the steam to our guesthouse.

Kuala Lumpur Explorers Guesthouse

We had chosen to stay at Explorers Guesthouse, and it was a stylish little place that immediately showed us how much further our money was going to stretch in Asia compared to Australasia. We took off our shoes upon entering, checked in, scurried to the room, then slept the flight off for a few hours in air conditioned and humidity-free comfort.

Consequently, when I woke up, it all felt like a bit of a dream.

I knew I was really in Asia, but it just didn’t feel real, and the following hours were filled with fits of what I would call culture “surprise”. No extreme culture shock or anything, just a bit of awkwardness getting used to being on the eastern side of the world for the very first time.

Kuala Lumpur was pretty loud, smelled strong, and had the most garbage strewn streets I had seen since college. Most of my culture surprise though had to do with what we had come there for in the first place: food.

I’ve always been a bit of a worrywart when it comes to whether or not dishes have been cleaned properly, and I knew that was going to have to go out of the window when eating Asian street food. I just wasn’t ready to toss it out yet. So that first day, we went to a touristy food court near the guesthouse and I just ordered Chicken Rice, which while revered by many in Malaysia and beyond as a real delicacy, is essentially just chicken, rice, and a tasty little sugary-spicy side sauce. It helped ease me in. I had another plain meal for dinner and then was almost all the way there.

Kuala Lumpur chicken rice

Later that night, we took a scenic stroll around town looking at things called buildings, admiring the strands of lights hanging from trees, and finalizing our acclimation to the climate and to the city. I was so enthralled by the buzz of the city above me and my eyes so transfixed on some shimmering something or another that I violently tripped over something pretty big on the sidewalk.

After looking like a fool, I gathered my wits about me and whipped around to shower the thing I just tripped over in scorn and the universal “how in the hell did that get there?” look.

That’s when the thing I tripped over decided to scurry off. You see, the thing I tripped over was a rat. Seemed like a nice rat though, for the record.

So say what you want about Singapore and Bangkok being better places to get your feet wet in Asia, I can personally attest that Kuala Lumpur is the finest place on the continent to get your feet, well, whatever kicking a rat qualifies for.

Around Asia Chapter 1: Down and Out Down Under

 

I’m going to be starting this new thing called “Around Asia” where I will be recounting some of the adventures we’ve had, um, around Asia. Any proper account of our Asian adventures would be incomplete though without a mention of what directly preceded them at the airport in Australia. 

Just a night before it all went terribly wrong, all was right in the world.

We had just arrived in Australia feeling like jetsetters ready for a one night fling with the Super Sexy Siren of the Southern Hemisphere.

People do call Sydney that, right?

The reason we were only in Sydney for a solitary night wasn’t really the type of thing that most jetsetters would get mixed up with, but we hadn’t let that spoil our spirits one bit. Unlike most jetsetters who just fly into places for a night or two at the drop of their golden hat, we were actually forced to buy a flight to Australia at gunpoint by an airport check-in desk employee in Fiji.

Okay, okay, maybe she didn’t have a gun and maybe it was more of a counter than a desk. But she did speak to us in a very stern manner.

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Why had she treated us this way? Well, we had shown up at the airport in Fiji to fly to New Zealand with a one way ticket and it turns out that countries and airline check-in desk employees really hate that move. As it was explained to us, flying in to a country on a one way flight is essentially the same as walking around like a loose cannon yelling “I might just stay in your country forever because I’ve got no ticket out, baby!”

We weren’t planning on staying anywhere forever or anything like that, we just didn’t know where we wanted to go after New Zealand yet. So I suppose I can see where they could take our lack of planning the wrong way and want us to have a flight out before we boarded our flight in. Only maybe, because the elephant in the room of course being that just because you have a flight out of the country doesn’t mean you have to actually board it, so there’s just a tiny loophole in their policy.

We were forced to buy a ticket out of New Zealand to Australia on the spot at the aforementioned Fiji airport, and then a few weeks later bought our flight on to Asia from Sydney, thus leaving us with one random night in Sydney.

In addition to arriving in Sydney feeling like jetsetters, we were also riding high as the world’s newest booze barons because we had just bought one of those “big ‘ol” bottles of vodka they’re always selling at the airport Duty Free shops.

Not the one that’s as big as a fire extinguisher, the next one down.

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The original plan was to open that Russian beauty up in Sydney and toast to the good life on the roof terrace of the joint we were staying, as it had a marvelous view of the Opera House (see image above). For reasons that probably involved something called fatigue after a long day of sightseeing in the sun, we never got around to toasting. We ended up spending a sober night in Sydney just gawking at that view, bothering a few people to take pictures of us while gawking at that view, chasing down a great burger, and safely packing the bottle away in preparation for the flight the next day.

As thus, we arrived at Sydney Airport the next night with plenty of time to spare for our flight to to Asia and on cloud nine. We couldn’t believe our luck to have been “forced” to stay in Sydney for a night and had bees buzzing in our belly for all the tasty Asian food that we would soon be devouring. We assumed our place in a slow moving check-in line, and waited our turn.  Eventually, we approached the check-in desk as proud travelers about to set off another leg of an epic journey.

We lugged our backpacks on to the conveyor belt, exchanged pleasantries, and leaned up against the check-in counter. The airline check-in desk employee went down the familiar line of questioning regarding whether or not someone had asked us to smuggle an Australian bush ferret for them on the flight and even offered some advice to me to turn my cap around, because the Malaysians apparently don’t like backwards hats.

She closed her questioning with this beauty: “Do you have a flight out of Malaysia?”

We had assumed that an Asian nation wouldn’t be as hard on us as the Antipodean ones had been because, after all, free spirits fly their way into Asia every day with the goal of doing nothing but wandering around the continent wearing hippie pants and finding themselves, don’t they? And all those goofballs certainly don’t book return tickets, do they? Plus, everyone knows that lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?

We explained that we did not have a flight out but had no plans on moving to Malaysia and then were subsequently told that we couldn’t board the plane unless we bought a flight in the next 20 minutes.

Again.

We were then politely shuffled off to a penned-in area in order to book our flights on the faintest of faint WiFi signals.

It was a race against time and the reload button and it was definitely touch-and-go there for a minute, but somehow we managed to pull it off. We bought a flight from Malaysia to Singapore for six weeks into the future and once we showed them the e-mail confirmation, we were whisked by a walkie-talkie wielding supervisor straight to the front of the security line.

We were in the clear, but our clear booze wasn’t going to be with us much longer. That’s right, I had dumbly decided to put the bottle of vodka in my carry on bag thinking that since it was purchased at the airport it could be carried on the plane. Total bonehead move, I know, I know.

It all happened so fast that we didn’t have time to muster any tears or even attempt to put the whole bottle down in one fell swill like you see in the movies. We were forced to simply just wave it goodbye. From what I heard though, that bottle of vodka was the life of a raucous airport Christmas party later that year and was even blamed for one man using the boarding pass printing machine for, well, let’s not worry about what he did to that poor machine.

We still had to sprint through the terminal to make the flight and made it we did, just in the nick of time and a little sweatier for wear.

It was time to move on to Asia, a place like nowhere.