Saturday, August 22, 2009

Malaysia and Singapore

No place on earth is as cosmopolitan as Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian capital is home to a blend of Chinese, South Indians, Malays, Thais, Koreans, blacks and whites. Sit at a cafe and people-watch, and you'll see Chinese girls wearing short skirts and tank tops, redheads pushing strollers, Indians in saris. Even the Muslim women can't agree on the 'proper' way to dress: you're equally likely to spot women draped head-to-toe in black burqas, with only their eyes showing; others wearing brightly-colored headscarves, cinched at the chin, with regular clothes, and yet others wearing a transparent scarf loosely over their head so that their roots and their ears are exposed.

There seem to be no ethnic tensions in Kuala Lumpur: this rich blend of diversity gets along famously. The city could be a living advertisement for racial harmony. After spending a week there, I've figured out why. The people of this city have united over one common, shared love: Shopping.

Yes, shopping. Kuala Lumpur is the world's biggest shopping mall. It's not so much a "city" as it is a vast network of malls. The train stations connect from one mall to the next, letting passengers on and off directly inside the mall. And each mall has a pedestrian crossing that connects, underground, from one mall to the next, so you can walk across whole neighborhoods without ever stepping outside for air.

Of course, the constant air-conditioning that malls provide are, for us, the prime reason to go, as KL is devestatingly hot during the day, and a stroll through a crowded shopping-plex provides the ultimate relief from the sticky, muggy heat. So all week, we strolled past Cartier, Fendi, and Lancome counters, we browsed books at Kinokumiya, ate masala dosas at the Food Court, and watched $2.50 screenings of newly released Hollywood films.

We stayed for so long because we had to wait for our laptop's hard drive to get replaced. Did I mention our power cord was stolen about 3 months ago? Well, it was -- the laptop was fine, but the cord was lifted. As a result, we spent 2 months hauling our MacBook, now a giant paperweight, around primitive parts of Indonesia that aren't modern enough to carry contact lens solution or tampons, nevermind the possibility of carrying replacement power cords. (Ask me how I know.)

When we finally flew to KL, the city that's a shopping mall, we made a beeline to the Mac Store. But alas, as soon as we plugged our laptop in, tingling with excitement at this reunion, the hard drive immediately crashed. I blame the thieves. I don't know why or how, but I blame the thieves. It seems like too much of a coincidence.

Nonetheless, we lost all our data. All my journal/diary entries from this trip -- notes I was keeping for the book I plan to write -- have disappeared. Most of the photos we've taken on this trip are gone. We now have a souvenir hard drive wrapped in tin foil. And we stare at it, glumly, knowing one year's worth of journal entries and photos are sitting somewhere in that hard drive, refusing to get out.

So when we said good-bye to the Billabong stores, Arabian Oud perfume shops and sushi conveyor belt cafes that characterize Kuala Lumpur, and headed south to Tioman Island, I made sure to keep notes by hand. And since I'm too lazy to dredge them up in order to write this entry, you're going to read strictly what I can remember off the top of my head.

Tioman Island: home to the cheapest beer in Malaysia, thanks to its status as a duty-free island, which means its cans of Carlsburg aren't subject to the "infidel tax" that the Islamic-influenced government assesses on alcohol. (They're both morally opposed to, and profit handsomely from, alcohol consumption).

But beyond the cheap beer -- which still isn't cheap -- wildlife is the best reason to go to this little island in the South China Sea. There are no cars on Tioman Island, no paved roads; only a dirt path that bikes occasionally travel. Hardly any people live on the island, other than hotel and restaurant operators; if it has an indigenous population (which it may or may not), it's quite sparse.

As a result, if you look high into the tree branches on Tioman Island you can see pythons napping in the sun. At night bats fly overhead, hunting the mosquitos that live in the island's dense forest. Thank God for bats. They're nature's DEET.

Tioman Island is overrun with monkeys, big grey long-tailed monkeys with fluffy white beards that leap tree-to-tree. Its skies are filled with tropical birds. Its grounds are covered with monitor lizards, big scaly creatures with sharp claws that look like little Komodo dragons. These monitor lizards, from head to tip of tail, extend longer than the length of my leg.

The wooden walls of our beachfront bungalow on Tioman Island was home to spiders the size of my hand. I used to sit on my porch at night and watch geckos on the ceiling nibble at bugs and insects.

The island is completely overrun with cats, all of which resemble each other in color, size and design, representing a starting lack of genetic diversity and a high degree of inbreeding. Most of the time they meow pathetically at your doorstep, but I'd occasionally spot a cat with a gecko in its mouth. And it's no coincidence that Tioman Island was one of the first places in the past few months where we didn't have any mouse or rat problems.

And because the island is so small, and car-free (in fact, it's pavement-free), its also de riguor for all bungalows and restaurants to be on the beach or in the forest (the only thing seperating ocean from forest is about 35 feet of sand.) Though every meal was eaten on a wobbly table while sitting in a cheap plastic chair, it was always directly on the beach.

We spent 6 nights on Tioman Island and were sad to leave so soon, but we had to hurry if we wanted to have enough time to visit 3 more locations:

(1) the world's oldest rainforest, where we spent 1 night sleeping in a shelter deep inside the jungle

(2) Malacca, the world's most recently-crowned 'World Heritage City' by the United Nations. Malacca was made famous for the pirates in the Straits of Malacca, and

(3) the richest country in Asia, Singapore. I didn't think I'd like Singapore -- it seems to business-like and boring, like "California run by Mormons," as the guidebook says -- but it's actually a really sweet place to visit.

First of all, it has paved roads, and stoplights, and neatly-trimmed hedges. It's buildings have to live up to a building code. It's avenues have medians and pedestrian crossings. In a word, it's developed. This alone makes me love it.

Singapore appeared, to us, after a year of rats, tin roofs and trash heaps, after a year of dirt roads, potholes, and diesel exhaust, after a year of buildings that are so crooked that your round items actually roll from one side of the room to the other.

After all that, it's wonderful to see a country that has neatly-trimmed hedges. Someone in the country owns a hedge-trimmer! Wow!

Singapore is home to a great riverfront (eat your heart out, Cincinnati!), the world's sweetest city botanical gardens (worthy of an entire day of your life, easily), and home to the universe's most incredible zoo. I saw orangutans for the first time in my life, thanks to the Singapore Zoo. (Fun fact: in Indonesian, "orang" means human, and "utan" means forest. "Orang-utan" is literally the man of the forest. And with their opposable thumbs and the expression in their eyes, they really, really do resemble humans. Picture your hairy Uncle Steve. That's what an orangutan looks like.) The Singapore Zoo even manages to keep polar bears, despite it's location 1 degree from the equator. I went there twice in the 2 days we spent in Singapore, and I regret that we didn't stay in Singapore longer, just for the sake of spending more time at the zoo. If I lived there, I'd go to that zoo monthly. And I'd go to the botanical gardens near-daily. Seriously, this place is worth seeing. And its air is clean, and its people are well-behaved.

In Singapore, you can ask someone on the street for directions, and they'll give you directions. Just like that! Without asking for a tip, without trying to sell you a taxi ride, and without saying 'oh, I'm going that way, follow me,' and then leading you to their perfume shop where they morph into a high-pressure salesman. I'm shocked by the honesty. Shocked. And I love Singapore for it.

But I've written enough for now. Stay tuned.

And P.S. -- no, the photos on this posting we not taken by me. You'll have to wait until I load the Malaysia photos onto our brand-new hard drive. This takes a lower priority to everything else that must be done to get this new hard drive up to speed. Because guess what? We lost all our Southeast Asia photos in the Great Hard Drive Crash of 2009, and now, frankly, I don't care anymore about loading photos.