I’m the urban snowflake, baby!

Malaysia delivered the goods yet again. In the last three weeks, we’ve seen orangutans in the rainforest of Borneo, looked down on Kuala Lumpur from the top of the glittering Petronas Towers, wandered through the serene national mosque, explored the street art of Georgetown and marvelled at the kitsch cat museum. If that was too much culture, we’ve also been to the movies, eaten a lot of sushi and watched two full seasons of iZombie.

So, on our final night in Malaysia, we reflect on what we will miss (and what we won’t).

We’ll miss:

The food – The sheer variety is dizzying. Whether you fancy Malaysian, Belgian or Peruvian, it’s probably available. The quality is far higher than almost anywhere else we’ve been (perhaps bar Melbourne) and standards of hygeine are much more reliable. This all comes with a low pricetag. As much sushi as you can order? About £10 a head. A big bowl of Assam Laksa, the sour fish broth with fresh herbs and thick noodles? £1.25. We also celebrated Allan’s birthday in one of KL’s best restaurants for under £50 each (including cocktails and wine).

The diversity – The moment we stepped out of KL Sentral train station, we realised how much we’d missed being somewhere where everyone is not the same. The easiest to spot is obviously race: there are people living there from every corner of the planet. It was the first place where women driving taxis was unremarkable. It was also the first place in SE Asia where we saw gay couples out and about, holding hands (but given Malaysia’s appalling record on LGBT rights, they were probably tourists).

The street environment – Call us urban snowflakes, but there’s a lot to be said for safe places to walk, an underground sewage system and traffic lights. The last time we were here, seven years ago, we got chatting to a woman in Penang who asked us what we had liked about Malaysia. ‘Pavements’, we both said in unison. Still true.

We won’t miss:

Walking etiquette – There is something unspoken about how you share space with others in any culture. In Malaysia, we just haven’t managed to wrap our heads around it. Walking very slowly is obviously de rigeur but, here, large groups will think nothing of walking four abreast across a pavement or hallway. Where foot traffic flows in both directions, generally a complicated and inexplicable eye contact-based negotiation should occur that allows both parties to pass each other without incident. Either we don’t know the unspoken rules or the norm is simply pedestrian chicken.

Open-mouthed coughing and spitting – Again. Not unique to Malaysia but, based on our own cultural expectations, we find it horrible. What’s most bemusing is that there are great reasons not to do it. So why has covering your mouth when you cough or refraining from gobbing in the street not made it into general etiquette while ‘no head touching’ has?

Air Asia check in – Oh. My. God. Queue at a machine to print your boarding pass (thank the member of staff whose job it is to help you use the machine). Queue at a machine to print out your luggage tags (thank the member of staff whose job it is to help you use the machine). Join the queue for the actual check-in desk once you have shown the two people at the entrance that, yes, you have printed your boarding card and luggage tags. Get to desk but discover you have failed to queue for document check. Queue for document check. Queue at check-in desk again to show boarding pass to one member of staff, while another attaches your luggage tag. Wonder how much quicker and less stressful this would be if the five staff you encountered before you got to the desk simply each ran an extra check-in desk of their own, at which one person managed to check your passport, print your boarding pass, and tag your luggage. Gaaaahhhhhhh!

Penang take two: butterflies, temples & superheroes

Our first visit to Penang was an unplanned itinerary change, allowing Chloe time to recover from the digestive challenges visited upon her by New Zealand and Indonesia. Our second visit was intended to wrap up Malaysia with a big ribbon. And what better way than to indulge in its ‘big three’: natural and human-made beauty, great food and the silver screen?

Entopia is the reincarnation of the old Penang Butterfly Farm. The butterflies were, as butterflies always are, ethereally gorgeous. We just stood and marveled as they floated jerkily around us, all colours and sizes. The rest was a mildly disappointing range of bells and whistles (mostly made out of papier-mâché), some depressing lizards and insects in tiny, bare boxes. The mighty gecko should not be penned up in such a way. Mind you, the glossy pile of huge, black scorpions that first greeted us were a sight to behold.

The Burmese Buddhist Temple is the oldest Buddhist temple on Penang. It’s a green pool of calm nestled amongst shopping malls and the soaring glass towers of luxury flats. It may also have brought us enormous luck because, as we stood on the roof of the bell tower looking over into the Thai Buddhist Temple’s complex, we found out that we’d secured the last decent apartment left in the whole of Greece for early August!

Between these treats for the soul, we also looked after our senses with sushi, Wonder Woman (deceptively formulaic plot and totally kick-ass women over 40), sushi, Spiderman (fun and funny), and sushi. There was even time to watch another spectacular lightning display and for a traditional bowl of Penang Assam laksa: sour, fishy and oh so good.

Penang treated us well both times. We’ll miss it.

Feline good about Kuching

Kuching is Malaysian for “cat”, so you must fur-give this post as it will tell a tail that is evocative but not too provocative. Yes, I’m afraid this post is littered with cat puns.
We have barely left the hotel when we meet a group of local taxi drivers who insist we join their breakfast of gorgeous curry and specatular rainbow layer cake in celebration of the end of Ramadan – how lovely. Selamat Hari Raya!

We don’t have to scratch the surface of Kuching to see cats. There are giant models on roundabouts (big enough to give Cambodia a run for its money), sculptures beside restaurants and the live specimens are just lion there on chairs in cafés while we have our cattacinnos. It is simply not pawsable to miss them.

We do not have to be purr-suaded to visit the Kuching Cat Museum. It’s a whole mew ball game – a homage to all things cat. The displays include models, furtographs, actual and spoof film posters, taxidermic cats (may they rest in puss), jewellery and books. It has everything including the kitten sink. As Shakespeare once said, “Tabby or not Tabby, that is the question”

Kuching has more to it than just cat-related delights. It is hosting a world mewsic furstival next week with 30,000 attendees. Claw-some. Shame we are missing it, although we are disappointed that Yusuf Islam (the meow-sician formally known as Cat Stevens) is not headlining.

There is also street art (the wheelbarrow full of baby orangutans is by the same artist who created much of Georgetown’s iconic murals). Little India and Chinatown dazzle all the senses. And we haven’t even had a chance to visit the huge natural parks nearby.

Anyhow, hope you enjoyed the furtographs of the day that reminded us of our slightly poorly cat back at home. Kuching, and Borneo in general, is well worth the detour and bumpy plane rides.

Ook

The orangutans of Borneo are under pressure, mainly because their forest is being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. If ever there was a reminder that you can commit harm from your office desk with an innocent-seeming Kit Kat it’s the sight of beautiful, human-adjacent creatures like these.

Near Kuching, the Semenggok Sanctuary is an area of protected rainforest that offers semi-wild orangutans a safe home and back-up when food is scarce. As it’s not currently fruiting season, the sanctuary is putting some out at 9am and we should get a sighting.

There are easily a hundred people here. When we visited Sepilok there were barely twenty. Despite the usual couple of idiots, though, we were surprisingly quiet for such a large group of humans.

Before we had even made it to the feeding area, a grandmother in her forties and her grandson aged nine, had already turned up. Luckily, most of the group then headed to the official viewing platform, leaving about a dozen of us to stare in awe as the pair set to cracking open the coconuts they’d secured.

It was magical. Don’t buy bloody palm oil.

Independence, orchids & Errol Flynn

 

We’ve left the Malaysian mainland for Sarawak (part of Borneo) and the administrative capital, Kuching. It’s another riverside city in which two ages collide. Tiny taxi boats are the quickest way to get from one side of town to the other and there’s an old Chinese temple or mosque around every corner. They all exist alongside shiny, air conditioned malls and dual carriageways.

On our first day, we discover a bit of Kuching’s past and present. We pay the boatman one Ringat (about 20p) to take us across the river to the foot of the new state legislature – a golden-roofed behemoth that some locals call ‘the lemon squeezer’. Chloe has a soft spot for parliamentary buildings but this one is bemusing. It’s vast, surrounded by fences and not easy to get to. Its designers boldly ignored the goal trend for openness and transparency in democratic buildings and instead went for the full bling!

Next door is Fort Margherita and the James Brookes Gallery. His name crops up a lot here. He was the first of the ‘white rajas’ and the exhibition tells the story of his family’s rule.

There is some evidence that the Brookes era was unusually peaceful, in global terms, and there are multiple documents stating Brookes’ desire to run a state in which all tribes, races and religions had equal status.

It’s worth noting, though, that he was gifted Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei for putting down both pirates and local insurgents with massive firepower and that, despite repeatedly saying that the ultimate goal was self-determination for Sarawak, it did not happen while his family was in charge (from 1841 to 1946).

There was some light relief from all the confusing colonial ethics in a flirty letter from Errol Flynn to one of the later Ranees. He says “I’ll probably be coming to NY soon after the new year and will, if I may, give you a blast on the phone. Maybe we can get a little drink together before one of your lectures, eh? Happy Xmas. You’re sweet!”

After the Fort, we walk up through the administrative district, which boasts lots of very large buildings, hundreds of parked cars but very few people on the streets. A whiff of ‘I Am Legend‘ here and, as a result, it’s both very peaceful and a bit spooky. Eventually, avoiding slaughter by the infected last dregs of humanity, we make it to the Orchid Park.

Incredibly, it’s free to get in. A mini Kew Gardens awaits, with dozens of orchid varieties hanging, climbing and growing out of little nooks. The ‘cold house’ is particularly spectacular, though the giant rotary fans built into the walls at each end do continue the post-apocalyptic aesthetic.

Finally, back across the river for breakfast of nasi lemak and cappuccino: the perfect actual and metaphorical combo.

 

Petronas charm – the reprise

Chloe in 2011 and 2017

This holiday has been a lot of the new (New Zealand and Australia especially) but has also a chance to revisit some sights and sounds from our last visit to SE Asia. We wanted to visit the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur again as this was one of the highlights of our trip in 2010-11 and to reprise the lovely photo of Chloe in front of the towers.

This time, we are wowed again by the twin towers at night. The towers are spectacularly lit up and, in a city of huge skyscrapers, they still stand out as a beacon in the night sky. There was a fountain display which was less impressive, but this whole area is one not to be missed if anyone is near Kuala Lumpur one evening.

 

A couple of days later we buy tickets to go inside the towers. It not cheap, just over £15 each, and we were treated to a queue to get in, a queue to get through security, a queue to get in the lift, a busy “skybridge” on the 41st floor and a very busy (and noisy) 86th floor panoramic floor lookout.

It was a long way up, around 380m, and the cityscape views from up there were pretty stunning but can’t feel that the whole thing was spoiled by the number of people they allow to visit – 80 people every 15 minutes.

However, the best view of all is actually sitting in the gardens at the bottom looking out at the towers themselves in the fading light of the day.

 

Build, pray, make

Still somewhat dazed by the scale and complexity of KL, with the help of Uber we head out to explore. The number one pastime seems to be shopping, but that’s concentrated in the mega-malls: cathedrals of glass and marble designed to disorient and induce zombie-like purchasing mania. We studiously avoid these and instead hit a few tourist favourites. All three are free and we were lucky enough to get guided commentary in each.

The KL City Gallery isn’t, to our slight disappointment, an art gallery but an exhibition that celebrates the built environment of Kuala Lumpur. It traces its origins as a river-mouth trading town (the name means ‘muddy waters’) largely built on tin, through its rise to a global hub of commerce, culture and (of course) shopping. The pièce de résistance is a vast cityscape, about 30 metres by 20 metres, which lovingly recreates every major building and landmark in architect-quality models. The place was founded by Andrew Lee, a man who loved architecture but couldn’t afford to qualify so turned his significant skills to creating architects’ models. The Gallery is a celebration of this combination of art and engineering in all its forms, and a love letter to a city that many would see as a modernist dystopia.

Our return visit to the National Mosque was equally full of love for KL, but from a different perspective. The building is modern, functional and oozes serenity. Much like the MI6 building in Vauxhall, it may not be as pretty as other examples but it exudes purpose and that makes it attractive in itself. Volunteers welcome visitors and offer the opportunity to find out about the building, its design, and what happens in different parts, and to ask questions. We found out that the call to prayer is never a competition (which crossed our minds when we stayed in Yogyakarta between three mosques all calling the faithful simultaneously) and that the early morning call includes an extra line – “It’s better to pray than to sleep”!

Finally, the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre was a bit of punt. Much as Royal Doulton makes porcelain, Royal Selangor makes pewter. We began with a history of pewter in Malaysia. Made originally of tin and lead (now tin, copper and antimony) it was used for everything from lamps to cutlery. Early money in the region took the form of animals like crocodiles and turtles, with value denoted by weight, and (oh my) money trees. It wasn’t clear whether they were magic money trees, but there were certainly plenty to go round. We also saw the factory floor where all kinds of pewterware is cast, finished, decorated and polished.

During our visit, we were lucky enough to meet Datin Paduka Chen Mun Kuen, one of the company Directors and great-granddaughter of its founder, Yong Koon. She told us the story of the lucky ‘melon teapot’, which saved the life of a man called Ah Ham when he bent to pick it up out of the rubble of a bombed building during World War Two causing the shrapnel from another bomb to narrowly miss his head. By chance, it was discovered to be a pot originally made by Yong Koon by his granddaughter’s husband, who stopped by for tea with Ah Ham many years later. The original now lives in the museum. It was wonderful to hear the story from a family member, but we were sadly unable to purchase a replica for £500. We made do with a miniature for a tenner.

Birthday in KL

Arrival in the big and bustling city of Kuala Lumpar and it is unusually quiet due to Ramadan. Roads are empty, apartments seem unoccupied and tourist sites, malls & restaurants are all mostly closed.

We’re staying in an AirBnB apartment instead of the usual B&B or hotel and suddenly we have space the size of our flat, a sofa, Netflix and other home comforts. It is all rather nice, although we do have to remember how to use a washing machine and do washing up. We may even do some home cooking, although…

Our apartment seems to be located within the posh (but relatively cheap) restaurant area. Somehow we manage to book Tripadvisor’s no.1 restaurant – Manja – with barely 2 hours notice for a birthday treat. It was open and barely 5 minutes walk away.

We gorge ourselves on prime Wagyu beef steak, Tibetan pepper prawns with avocado and Borneo coconut tuna all washed down with cocktail and wine. It all got a little Heston Blumenthal at one point with liquid CO2 cooling down our tuna – see here for our memories of that meal. They even give us a free personalised birthday treat and schnapps to finish the meal. Wonderful.

We’ll have an explore around KL soon if only to avoid the temptation of spending all our daily budget on our apartment and gourmet food…

Historic buildings sandwiched by absolute chaos

Our last day in Penang was spent pretty much like most of the rest of the days; Do something interesting in the morning, lie down due to the heat and humidity for afternoon and have a lovely dinner in evening.

The “interesting in the morning” section was to visit Pinang Peranakan Mansion or “this is how it would feel to be the richest Malaysian in the late 19th century”. It was the definition of opulent. Grand dining rooms including the finest china (different colours for different months – obviously), flooring and glassware from England, marble from Italy and much other spectacular stuff from all over the world. Oh, did we mention there was his own private temple and own Chinese medicine room? There were also some not so nice stories of how the women of the time being made to endure foot binding amongst other nasties. Was it fascinating? Was it totally over the top? Was it worth the £4 entry fee? A “yes” on all counts although I’m sure the originally owner wouldn’t have allowed us hoi polloi anywhere near even his front door.

Next up was our flight from KL to Phnom Penh. The flight itself was fine, but this was after queueing up at 4 separate check-in counters, 3 lots of security checks and an airport terminal that just couldn’t cope with the amount of flights. There was 1 shop selling cool drinks for around 50 planes-worth of waiting passengers. And don’t get us started on the Cambodian side, but best just say that over an hour and a half of absolute chaos and chasing and we finally got our precious $30 visa – we were not happy whatsoever. And it decided to absolutely chuck down with rain, so we were very happy when our taxi driver managed to find our newish hotel right in the middle Phnom Penh and even more happy to find out that the air conditioning was quiet, but effective, and the balcony doors were double glazed to keep out most of the noise of the busy city.

This morning we had a quick wander around this, the most bonkers of all cities. Phnom Penh is just so busy, it has loads of history and so much happening on every street corner. As we remembered from last time we were here, against every first impression, it is a city that we like, apart from the seedy undercurrent of the way too many girlie bars.

We dropped in on the excellent Daughters of Cambodia shop – read their story on the link, worthy is the word. We then ended up for a comfort lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC). The FCC is another grand old building with history and views of the mighty Mekong river just across the road. Unlike other FCCs around the world, is not a private club, non-journalists and non-members are more than welcome. Comfort food of Pad Thai and Vegetable pasta was ordered and didn’t disappoint and we’re now ready again for the afternoon siesta.

House! George Town bingo

George Town is full of delights. However, we are suffering from a spot of travelling malaise (the tiredness and guilt one suffers when in the privileged position of becoming weary of unfamiliar rooms, transport, food, language, sights and customs) so have decided that Penang is where we will follow our whims. Our whims seem to lean alarmingly in the direction of air-conditioning and comfort food.

Despite the heat, we really enjoyed our slightly aimless wander through the town a couple of days ago. So we secure a map of the most famous street art and decide to fill in the gaps. It only takes an hour and half to zig-zag our way through: children on swing, giant boatman, child on chair, giant child balancing on windows and more.

The added benefit is that we get to see little alleyways, side streets and parts of town that we likely wouldn’t have passed through. Although it’s compact, the George Town UNESCO Heritage Zone offers lots of different streetscapes. Traditional ‘Chinese houses’ with their broad sliding front doors rub shoulders with art deco classics, spectacular Chinese clan houses and British colonial statement pieces (screaming ‘we woz ‘ere’).

Other than that, we splash out on sushi, laksa, pizza, sushi, real coffee and, er, more sushi. Much of our sushi is consumed at the monumental Gurney Paragon Mall, eight floors of beige marble, high end shopping and, aaah, air conditioning. We plonk ourselves down to watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 on the top floor. It’s loud, spectacular, funny and ridiculous. Just what we fancied. The whiff of Alaskan Spider Crab flavoured popcorn (which smells as bad as it sounds), not so much…