Saturday, August 27, 2011

August 25, 2011 - The Batu Caves

I thought maybe I had managed to save the best KL tourist attraction for last. As it turned out this was true in some ways and not in others. The huge caves were discovered on the outskirts of KL in the mid-1850's and it wasn't long after that the caves were adopted by the local Indian population as a Hindu shrine. I tried to find out WHY the caves were adopted this way - is it common for Hindu Temples to end up in magnificent natural settings? But for now that question remains unanswered.

The natural setting of the caves is indeed awe-inspiring, but the manmade embellishments are a mixture of the sublime, the shoddy, and the ridiculous. The 280+steps leading to the cave are, from a distance, beautiful and intimidating. Upon closer inspection the steps were narrow and dirty. The railings were rusted and worn, with trash strewn along the grass on the sides of the lower steps.

But the huge golden statue of the Hindu god lord Murugan, and the wonderful views from the top of the stairs were lovely. The actual cave is just huge. After I climb the initial set of stairs, I enter a large cavern. Water drips from the ceiling, and sunlight spills through an opening high above the cavern floor. The walls of the cavern hold various Hindu temples, shrines and statues of gods. At the other end of the cavern another set of stairs climbs to a second opening. This second cavern is bathed in sunlight from an opening high above. Monkeys wait for handouts and yet another shrine sits along the wall.

After I walk back down the steps I decide to pay the 15 Ringit to visit something called the Cave Villa. This turns out to be a series of lurid paintings depicting scenes from the Bahatva Gita, the Hindu scriptures. The guidebook describes these paintings as psychedelic and that seems right. They were pretty in a garish sort of way, but altogether too touristy for for my tastes.

The thing about the Batu Caves is that in spite of it's strangely kitschy nature, it's also an important religious shrine. During the January festival of Thaipusam, over a million people line the streets of KL to watch the religious procession from downtown KL to the Batu Caves.

I don't know very much about the Hindu religion, and I think some of my distaste is due to ignorance. Maybe if I knew and understood more about the philosophy behind the statues and paintings I could appreciate them more, instead of turning my snobby little nose up at them!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 23, 2011 KL Factory Day

Balan and Kumar were going to take me to the Batu caves today, but it was cloudy and rainy, so we decided to save that for Thursday. Instead they took me to several factories where I could see Malaysian products being made.

Me in Front of Towers of Tin at the Pewter Factory Museum

First we went to the Royal Selangor pewter factory. Pewter is a tin alloy, and tin is a raw material readily available in Malaysia, so it makes sense that pewter would be manufactured here. The factory included a little museum about the history of pewter in Malaysia. We couldn't see the actual factory in action, but we were taken around to several model work stations where we could watch sample products being made. We even got to try our hand at pounding little dents in a pewter mug. Of course I was impossibly bad at this. Good thing I don't have to try to make my living with my hands.

Then, of course, we are taken to the gift shop. I actually wanted to buy a pewter bowl here, and found one that was just what I was looking for. It's very heavy; I hope I can fit it in my suitcase!

Next we went to a batik factory. I was able to see handmade batik fabrics being made. The artists draw with the hot wax, then apply the paint within the areas defined by the wax. Finally hot water is used to remove the wax and leave the distinctive white lines between the areas of color.

Once again, after the factory I'm taken to the gift shop. I decide to buy a zip up batik shopping bag, and a Malaysian sarong, called a pareo. They throw in some instructions on tieing the pareo, which I will need if I want to do anything with it besides wrapping it around my waist.

We make one more stop at a chocolate factory, which should have been right up my alley, but when we arrived it was overwhelmed by a horde of Chinese tourists, being very Chinese, so I didn't stay long. Pushing and shoving in order to get my share of the durian chocolate is not my idea of a good time. After a free sample of some tiramisu chocolate drops I was ready to call it a day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 21 2011 - Langkawi, Kayaks and Cocktails

Let's see. When I left off we were about to make our way to the adult pool, a somewhat Romanesque extravaganza, with private cabanas overlooking the sea. We settled into our lounge chairs, exploring our temporary abode. The chairs were covered by thick fresh towels by our attendant. The water was cool and inviting, and I was feeling warm, so in I went, paddling back and forth, occasionally stopping on the steps leading to our cabana to grin at Lee, relaxing on his chair. Finally I felt cool enough to get into my chair too, but it wasn't long before I was ready for something else, like a cocktail. I settled on a tropical punch concoction. When it came I started guzzling it way too fast because I couldn't taste the alcohol. Lee actually got worried about me and told me to slow down! Well he knows me and my tolerance for alcohol, and of course he was right.

The next morning we decided to order breakfast from room service. The service at this hotel is very, very good, and our breakfasts came in short order. We settled in to enjoy our food and we were having a pleasant time, when a noise made me glance up at the gutters along our roof. Three small monkeys were eyeing us cannily, with more monkeys watching from the nearby trees. Well, we know what this means! We quickly start moving the food inside. I have no desire for a confrontation with a macaque, even if they are smaller than the ones in Hong Kong. As we're moving the food inside, we discover that our second balcony door is open and several monkeys are getting ready to make an advance in that direction. We slam it shut, and eventually they turn away in disappointment.

Then it's time for our morning activity, a kayak trip along the coast to see the mangrove swamps. It's low tide so we can't get right into the mangroves, but it's still a very nice little trip. Peter, our guide, is an Austrian that came here for a vacation 13 years ago, and never left. He was very knowledgeable about the mangroves and the various birds we saw during our excursion. He gave us some pointers on kayaking too, which helped me improve my technique. I'm hoping this will help me the next time we go kayaking on Arlington Pond. We'll see!

Another rainstorm is coming our way, so we hop back onto the launch that brought us and our kayaks to the mangroves. Peter says that the open sea will get very choppy because of the storm, so he opts for returning to the resort via a nearby river.

This turns out to be very interesting. The river is a sanctuary for aging sailboats, rusting away on their moorings. The sailboats hail from ports all over the world, including Australia, Europe, Canada and the US. Almost all of them look very hard used. They are a far cry from the beautiful boats depicted in Lee's Cruising World magazines. I imagine that these boats have been to many countries before they ended up on this lonely river in Langkawi. Peter tells us that in fact some of them have been abandoned by their owners, who running out of either money, energy, or both, have left them here to decay. It's strange and kind of spooky.

There are also a lot of other tourist launches traversing this river. The other launches feed the monkeys that line the banks, looking for a handout, and throw raw chicken into the water for the Malaysian eagles that swoop down and carry the pieces away. Peter looks on disapprovingly, since this behavior by our fellow humans messes up the local ecology.

Later in the afternoon I indulge in a "Marine Wrap" spa treatment. After an exfoliating scrub, I am covered in a luxurious mud, wrapped in cloth, given a wonderful head massage while the mud dries. Then once the mud is rinsed off, a "firming" lotion is rubbed into my skin. I exit the spa feeling relaxed, glowing, and well, yes, with firm skin.

This morning, our last day at the resort, is my day for a long run. It wasn't too hot when I started my run, but it was very, very humid. It took two circuits along the beach and through the resort to get to 6 miles, and for the last two miles I had to slow down some, because even staying in the shade, it was so humid that I could feel my body really struggling to stay cool.

This was a really nice, relaxing vacation, even though it was only two nights. I know it was good for Lee to have a break. He's been working really hard. And I was happy to finally visit Langkawi, which certainly lived up to my expectations!

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 19 2011 City Tour and Welcome to Langkawi

Here I sit on our beautiful private balcony at the Four Seasons Resort on Langkawi, a small island off the coast of Malaysia, watching the rain come pouring down. The thunder is rumbling, the water is streaming down the sides of the palm trees. We have our very own piece of beach, and before this storm blew in we could see Thailand in the distance.

This resort is absolutely beautiful. It's not huge, but it's big enough that each guest can have a complementary mountain bike for the duration of their stay, if they choose. Or, you can call a golf cart to take you to dinner, or you can stroll along the beach, whatever you please. Pebbled paths lead in all directions. There are restaurants, pools, a spa, a fitness center, yoga classes, kayak tours, hobie cats. There's even a little 9 hole putting green!

We flew in early this morning from KL. Lee had us met by a Mercedes coupe, just to start the coolness of this vacation off on the right foot. After a short tour of the facilities, we ate lunch overlooking the beach, and signed up for our activities for tomorrow. The rain is starting to let up, so soon we're going to head to the adult pool on our bikes. I'm excited in my little-kid-at-the-start-of-a-vacation way, and Lee is laughing out loud as he starts reading Dreaming In Chinese, by Debra Fallows, a great book if you've ever lived in an Asian country or attempted to learn Mandarin or Cantonese.

Yesterday Balan and Kumar took me on a "City Tour" of some of the major sights in KL. I can now check off my list the Theon Hou Temple, The King's Palace, The National Museum, the old train station, and the National Monument. I always enjoy getting a taste for how people feel about their country. Malaysians are passionate and proud of the peace and unity they have achieved in a place with such diversity in cultures and religions. It's not perfect by any means, and they certainly have their problems, but then what is?

The Theon Hou Temple sits high on a hill overlooking KL. It's very colorful and ornate, and is currently being renovated by hoards of workmen with tiny paintbrushes. The garden includes a set of statues depicting the different signs of the Chinese zodiac. My dragon is the best one!

The King's palace is closed to the public except on a few major holidays, but you can take your picture with the guards, and the guard's horse too, if you want. The title of king is passed from the prince of one province to the other every 5 years. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, so the king is only a title, but it's a nice system that spreads the honors around and prevents any jealousy between different parts of the country.

The old train station is nice, airy and clean. It's still used for some trains (I saw a sign for Batu Caves), but most trains go through the new station now. I'm spoiled by our drivers so I haven't tried the public transportation here. It gets mixed reviews. Some people say it's okay and some say it's not that great. I think it might be like Boston, where it depends where you want to go.

Finally the National Monument is a war monument, on another hill overlooking the city. It's peaceful, serene, and at the time of my visit, at almost 1pm in the afternoon, very, very hot. After that it was time to go back to the apartment, eat some lunch, and hide from the heat.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

KL Bird Park

On Tuesday I went to the KL Bird Park. It's supposed to be the largest aviary in the world. It's very nice, it you like birds (which I do). Many of the birds are allowed to fly freely within the netted area, and they are so used to humans that they stroll right by you nonchalantly, so it's easy to get good pictures.

Birds are so expressive, and so smart, in their own way. What I want to know from my serious bird-watching friend (you know who you are), if you see a bird you've never seen before in a place like this, is it fair to add it to your life list? Probably not....

Here are some of my best pictures, but go check out the rest of my bird park pictures on Picasa.

The ostriches are kept in an enclosure because they are aggressive.

I could have gotten my picture taken with a bunch of birds, too, but I declined the opportunity.

The bird show invoked memories of the St. louis Zoo, many years ago.

The parrots really enjoyed the slide, or maybe it was the food reward.

This puzzle was a piece of cake.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16 2011 Sari Shopping

When Kumar, our Indian driver, was taking me home from the Islamic Arts Museum, he told me that he would take us to Little India this weekend. "And madam, you should buy a sari!" "But what would I do with a sari?" I protested. "Sure, they are beautiful, but I would never wear it." I dismissed the idea. A sari? Ridiculous!

But on Sunday, Kumar was as good as his word. He picked us up and drove us to Little India, near KL City Center. This is the second time I've been to a Little India, having also gone to the one in Singapore. There are actually several Little India's in KL. There is also one in the Klang Valley, but this one is closer to our apartment.

Little India is bright and colorful, and LOUD. Indian pop music blares from almost every store. The sidewalks are crowded with Sunday shoppers, buying fruits and vegetables, spices, flowers and clothing. We pass a couple of sari shops, and Kumar looks at me expectantly. "Madam, would you like to go in and look?" but I resist. I know once I'm inside one of these shops, I'm a goner.

Finally, I give in, and you can guess what happens. Before I know it I'm placed in front of a mirror, and yards and yards of pink spangly fabric are whipped out in front of me. It really is pretty, how did they know pink is my favorite color?

First I put on a pink cotton skirt. The salesman cinches it tightly, too tightly I think, until I realize that it has to be tight for what follows. Then the sari fabric is wrapped around my waist firmly several times. THEN the salesman gathers the remaining fabric, from the point where it is wrapped around me to the point where the spangles start, into pleats about the width of his hand. He ends up with maybe 15 pleats, and THIS is tucked into the waistband of the pink skirt, which is why it has to be so tight. Then the remaining spangly part of the sari is draped over my shoulder, and wa-la! I am wearing a sari!

It's very pretty, but I feel a bit like Indian Barbie. I check the price. 165RM, divide it by 3 to get the price in US dollars.... And Kumar gets them to take 5RM off the price...and they add a pink Indian blouse and some bangles....and what if I DO get invited to an Indian wedding someday....or a Halloween party....oh, what the heck!

Kumar is very pleased. I don't really understand why he was so hell-bent on me buying a sari but the deed is done. I hope I DO wear it sometime. Maybe I'll start a trend in New Hampshire. Who I am kidding. It's hard enough there to find an excuse to wear a dress!

Friday, August 12, 2011

August 12 2011 A Little More Melaka

Okay, I've had it with this hotel. This morning Lee didn't need to be anywhere early so we took it easy (well yes after a workout at the gym), ate a leisurely breakfast, and got ready for our particular activities. Last night my plan to stroll along the river and try some real Melakan food failed miserably. It was virtually deserted, which of course felt unsafe, and after walking for 20 minutes I realized that it was far too far to walk in the stifling Melakan heat. I spent about 45 minutes walking about, trying to look all purposeful and alert, and getting absolutely nowhere. I ended up back at the hotel, had a stupid salad for dinner, and went to bed annoyed and grumpy.

So this was my last chance. The plan was to store my bags, get a taxi, tour a museum, find some authentic food. But of course first I have to get in the elevator, and that's where my plan ran into a wrinkle. The elevator wasn't working. We call the front desk, and they say they are working on it. Fifteen minutes or so go by. We call again. People are tromping up the stairs, but that doesn't appeal to me. Lee tells them to bring a bell hop. The bell hop arrives when the elevator starts working again. They take my bags up to the club floor, only to find out I can't store my bags there. So I take my bags down to the lobby and finally get them stored.

I get a taxi and off we go. He gets me close, but doesn't really know what I'm talking about when I say I want to go to the Baba Nyonya Museum. What is it with this town? But I find the museum just fine on my own and get there just as a tour is starting.

The Baba Nyonya Museum is a real Melakan house, built by some of the first settlers of Melaka, Chinese men and Malay women. It's actually three very narrow houses put together. It's filled with interesting antiques and our guide is good; she knows the house's history very well. I'm happy to be in a group of American and Chinese tourists. I make friends with the Americans, who live in KL, and we may make plans to meet later this month, maybe at the Batu Caves in KL.

The Chinese are kind of cute. I'm assuming they're from the mainland, because they are speaking Mandarin. It's funny, I can't speak Cantonese or Mandarin but I know what they sound like. Only a few of them speak English, so they are translating for the others, so sometimes there's is a delayed bit of laughter as the tour guide's jokes get to them a little late.

After the museum I wander around the streets of the historic district for a little bit. I go into antique stores and see nice skirts and blouses made with traditional Malaysian batik, but I know I won't wear it so I resist. I do buy some batik quilted pot protectors and a funny hat / fan. Oh heck, I've got to do SOME touristy things!

Then it's time to find a place to eat. I settle on a little Chinese restaurant called Nancy's Kitchen that serves Baba-Nyonya food, which is a mixture of Chinese and Malaysian Crusine. I choose a Nyonya laksa, which is Malaysian curry. It's very good, and a whole lot better than the crap I've been eating at the hotel!

Well now I'm stuffed and sitting in the lobby, waiting for a car to come and take me back to KL. I have to go by myself, since Lee has to work until late this afternoon and I don't want to wait that long.

I think Melaka has a lot to offer, and there is more I'd like to see and taste here, but I think next time we should skip the Renniassance and stay at the Majestic Hotel instead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 11 2011 Melaka

Yesterday we were picked up at around 7 am for our drive to Melaka. Depending on traffic, Melaka is around an hour and fifteen minutes from KL. Our driver was a little late because there was a big traffic jam due to an accident, but once we got out of KL the roads were very good and we zipped right along. Drivers here tend to hedge their bets and drive ON the white lines of a multi-lane highway, instead of within them. I find this a bit un-nerving, but Lee says it's a common practice. Before too long we're in Melaka. This is a city in the southern part of Malaysia, on the coast. It was the first port settled by Westerners in Malaysia, and it's heritage includes Portugese, Dutch, British, Chinese, Indian, and indigenous Malay. It's really a melting pot!

We're staying at the Renaissance Hotel, a somewhat shabby 5 star establishment. The service is good, typically Asian, but the rooms are a bit worn at the seams, and the tap water is occasionally a bit brown. As long as I don't drink it, though it doesn't bother me.

Lee is working (that's why We're here) so I'm on my own. I'm scheduled for a guided tour of the city at 2 pm. Although probably not a necessity this turns out to be worthwhile. I get a good overview of what there is to see in Melaka, and I can go back later and poke around on my own. In a little less than three hours we see a lot of the city. We walk around the historic center of the city, seeing ancient mosques, Hindu and Chinese temples, antique shops and chicken rice stands. It's pretty hot so it's nice to have the air conditioned van to go back to periodically.

We look at the old Dutch government buildings and climb the little hill to the remains of the Dutch cathedral overlooking the city. I love the old grave markers leaning against the cathedral walls and lining the floors. It's seems strange to be walking on someone's grave, even if it is 500 years old. But little cats sleep on the tombs undisturbed so I guess it's okay for me to trod the stones.

A storm is blowing in and the weather cools off a bit. A couple of days ago in KL I heard thunder for what seemed like hours, and then it spattered rain for about 5 minutes. This time isn't very different. The sky darkened, the winds blow, and a light drizzle begins, and soon ends. It cools things off however, which is nice.

We visit a famous well, with hordes of Chinese tourists, since apparently this well features prominently in their mythology. The guides show us some rather dubious magical properties of the well's water, but I'm not impressed. I like the nearby Chinese cemetery with thousands of crumbling graves better.

Now this morning I really had a great time. I went on a bike tour in the countryside outside Melaka. It lasted about 4 hours and during that time we saw rubber plantations, palm oil plantations and rice paddies. We sampled padaman, and red and yellow rambutan straight from the trees. We smelled the leaves of pepper plants, curry plants, and tarragon. We saw rubber being harvested. We saw giant lizards and bright blue kingfishers. We pedaled through prosperous villages where the people make a good living from palm oil and rubber, and can grow just about any vegetable you can imagine. Our tour consisted of me and a bunch of 20-somethings of French, Dutch and Canadian persuasion. I had no trouble at all keeping up with the young folk!

I felt a little sorry for our guide. He was lots of fun and full of interesting facts and stories, but he is Malay and Muslim so he can't eat or drink during our 20k tour. And it's hot. He's definitely ready for a break by the end. He is an excellent example of the benefits of water for keeping up one's energy in a hot climate. After all, I haven't eaten anything since morning either, but I'm drinking lots of water, so I feel just fine.

I highly recommend this tour if you ever find yourself in Melaka:

Now here I sit by the hotel's beautiful rooftop pool. The water is not at all brown, so I think I'll be going in shortly. This evening Lee has to work so I'm hoping to get out of the hotel for some real Malaysian food, if I can find my way around without getting lost. We shall see!


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