Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Malaysia Whirlwind

For some reason the word “whirlwind” comes to mind when I think about this past month here in Malaysia.  It has been one of the more sustained periods of travel that I have done in quite a long time.  Because of the constant moving, I have barely blogged about this trip at all.  Now that I am more settled here in Kota Kinabalu (KK), it is probably time to start.

We arrive in Malaysia on January 4, 2012 after about 36+ hours of driving, flying and sitting in airports.  Our first week was in the Kuala Lumpur (KL) area.  Our first and last nights were in the Quality Hotel in Shah Alam, so I would have easy access to the university that I am affiliated with for my Fulbright stay (UiTM – Universiti Teknologi MARA).  The rest of the week was at a friend’s apartment in KL, which happened to be a penthouse with an amazing view of the KL skyline. 

Although I have been coming to Malaysia quite often (about every 1.5 years) since 2005, I did not always make it to KL.  This time, I was pretty much blown away at the level of development that the city has achieved.  It now has one of the most modern skylines of any city on the planet. And maybe it was because my wife was with me, but I also found that KL had become a more fun city to visit. 

We went up to the top of the Petronas Towers (world’s highest twin towers), visited the new capital in Putrajaya (outside of KL), and went to Chinatown, in addition to getting a bank account and meeting with the Malaysian Fulbright office.  I also gave symposium lecture at the University of Malaya, and was asked if I would serve as an external examiner for their brand new urban planning program. (My stint as the external examiner for UiTM’s tourism program is what has been bringing me Malaysia recently and had just ended last year.)

View from the 86th floor observation deck of one of the two 88 story Petronas Towers.

The highlight of KL for us (in addition to the great food) was a visit to Batu Caves (, which is large cave complex that has become a Hindu Temple and is the site of the colorful Thaipusam Festival (which just took place yesterday, Feb 7, 2012;  In addition to the Hindu caves, which are reached via a 272 step staircase, there is the “Dark Cave”, which is a conservation site for bats and other cave creatures.  It is immediately adjacent to Batu Cave, but has never been developed, and you need to pay for a guided ecotour.  Together, this was a great experience!

After KL we flew to Kota Kinabalu with the goals of getting settled with the university there (UiTM Kampus Sabah), find a place to live, and find a car to rent.  This was my second visit to KK, and I have been wanting to return ever since I was first here in January 2007.  We stayed in the Hotel Eden54 – which is on the north edge of the city core and close to a lot of great food and sites to see (like the Philippine Market and Sunday Gaya Street Market).  More importantly, it was through the hotel’s front desk staff that we found our apartment and our car rental – after having mixed success looking on our own online and in the newspaper. 

During our week in KK, a friend from the university took us to the Sabah Tea Plantation, on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu (, and we spent half a day on the island of Manukan, where I snorkeled and tried out my new underwater camera case.

What stood out the most to me about that first week in KK was the food.  As good as it was in KL, we had some really great food in KK – especially seafood.  Sabah is famous for its seafood, and I really think it was some of the freshest and tastiest that I have ever had.  The restaurants and bakeries near our hotel were really great, too, especially the Bak Kut Teh (white bone tea;, which is a pork or other meat herbal soup.  Our last night was the start of Chinese New Year activities in KK and Gaya Street (near our hotel) was closed for nighttime activities, including lion dances, performances, food (of course), and a lot of other things for sale.

Our next stop was Singapore, where we stayed at a friend’s place in the Bedok Housing Estate (government subsidized housing;  There was no air conditioner, but her place was sufficiently cool enough, especially at this time of the year.  I gave a lecture at the National University of Singapore’s Geography Department and had lunch at the popular yong tau fu restaurant in the canteen there.  NUS continues to have the best student food options of any university I have ever visited. 

We visited Singapore’s Chinatown twice – once in the daytime and once at night to fully experience this center of Chinese New Year activities.  And we celebrated the traditional “reunion dinner” with our friends, which starts with the traditional yusheng salad (aka lou hei in Cantonese, where everyone around the table helps to mix the dish before it is eaten.

Mixing our Yusheng salad for Chinese New Year in Singapore

The biggest surprise was the new Sands Hotel and Marina Bay casino and shopping center area, which was just starting construction the last time I was in Singapore.  The other big shock was the prices for most everything in Singapore – often three times higher than in Malaysia!  Our biggest challenge there was finding internet access, which my friend did not have. 

The Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, in neighboring Jorhor Bahru, sent a car a driver to pick us up in Singapore and take us across the border, which was pretty fast since most people were away on holiday. Our last week of travel included a couple of nights in Johor Bahru (for another lecture), then a couple of days driving up the coast with a night on the beach in Cherating (a backpacker haven).

Our first night in the state of Terengganu was at the brand new Terrapuri Heritage Village Resort (, all of the building of which are over 100 years old on the outside, but very high end on the inside.  They were houses for the ruling classes in the past and have been moved here from around the state of Terengganu in an effort to save them.  We spent about three hours with the owner of the project (who is also the owner of Ping Anchorage, one of the larger travel agencies in Malaysia).  It is a very interesting, and so far successful, effort at conservation and community development (involving local fishing villages).

We also spent two nights at a high-end hotel that is the base site for the Monsoon Cup yacht races, and a couple of night in the downtown area of Kuala Terengganu (KT).  The Monsoon Cup race in November is very successful – filling all of the hotel rooms in KT when it is held in the middle of the rainy winter monsoon (  Our stay at that hotel (the Ri-Yaz) was hosted by the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), where I gave a guest lecture (and was asked to serve as a program reviewer of their brand new tourism degree program).

  We were surprised to see my large face, from a 20 year old photo, near the entrance to the UMT campus.

Chinese New Year was still going on (celebrations last 15 days) and KT has a really nice little Chinatown that was close to our last hotel.  We also had some great seafood and visited the Crystal Mosque and its adjacent model replicas of famous Islamic architectural sites. 

Finally, a main focus of our visit to Terengganu was to investigate possible places to live when we return to Terengganu in May for a one-month stay.  We looked at both legal and unlicensed homestays.  The unlicensed ones range from smelly dumps (still a bit pricy) to some nice clean ones.  We are still exploring options for that part of my Fulbright stay.

I told a friend here in KK a couple of days ago that that Terengganu was nice, but its great to be back home in Sabah.  He said that I sounded like a true “Sabahan”. :-)

Related to this: Have Block, Will Travel