Category Archives: Malaysia

Final Thoughts

So now I’m on my way home, flying over the Pacific as I type. I honestly can’t believe how quickly these past few months have passed, but on the other hand, I feel so fortunate to have experienced so much in such a short period of time. I just finished watching a movie on the plane – a nice, no-brainer chick-flick and there was one line it that really resonated with me. It basically said that life is half what you do with yourself and half about who you spend your time with. I can’t iterate enough how much my personal experiences were shaped (mostly for the good) by the people I was with. Had I done this trip completely alone, it’d have been awful. But as I’ve said before, and I’ll say again – that’s the best part of traveling – meeting people.

In the past 109 days, I’ve taken 2 overnight plane flights, camped on a beach for 2 nights, spent 5 nights on bus, took 2 overnight train rides and slept in 59 different beds (yes, I counted). I’ve taken 18 separate flights (well, by the time I get back to Chicago). I can’t even count the number of buses, tuk-tuk rides, rickshaws, motorbike rides, etc that I’ve taken. I walked 150 miles in 14 days, trekked to 5416 meters, rock climbed in Thailand, surfed in Bali, climbed south east Asia’s tallest mountain, white-water rafted in Bali, saw orangutans in the jungle, climbed a sulfur-spewing volcano in Sumatra, experienced new cultures, met amazing new friends, saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets, relaxed on the beach in “paradise,” did yoga in India, discovered new food, and through it all, had such an amazing time.

My time over the past 3.5 months was divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Nepal, India and Thailand. I think it’s interesting to note that the 3 wealthiest countries (that I visited on this trip) are Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. I noticed a few differences between the wealthier countries and the poorer ones. For one, the wealthier countries tend to have more cars, whilst the poorer ones either rely more on motorbikes or foot for transportation. The other difference, which I find quite notable, is that in the wealthier countries, women play a very visible role. They have jobs and interact with the public. They are seen out at night – sometimes even alone. In Indonesia, Nepal and India, local women are seen from a bus window, or seen in groups, or seen with families, but they don’t run shops, they rarely interact with tourists and they’re hardly ever seen after the sun goes down. In most places, it’s ok being a western woman (sometimes alone) at night, but India, it just doesn’t feel safe. That’s probably due in part to the “staring” culture that’s more noticeable than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s just interesting, because I believe that women play a vital role to a country’s development and to me, I’d say that the developing countries should work on making a women’s role in everyday life a more visible and vital one.

As I’ve mentioned, the people that I met made my trip what it was. From meeting an aspiring dominatrix from Montreal to a chain-smoking Jordanian man in Singapore who had his passport confiscated and was contemplating escaping from the country to a British man nearly in tears because his Muslim Indonesian wife ran off with their two children to a tattooed British man who constantly reeked of alcohol and cigarettes, but knew great magic tricks and was a former member of the Iranian mafia who spent time in a Malaysian prison for human trafficking, I’ve met a few characters to say the least. Best of all are the friendships formed and the memories that I share with those people.

My top moments of my trip were:

Tubing down the river in Bukit Lwang with (Indonesia)

Reaching the Throng-La pass at 17,769 ft (Nepal)

Catching waves in Bali (Indonesia)

Motorbiking to deserted beach after deserted beach in Lombok (Indonesia)

Watching the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kinabulu (Malaysian Borneo)

Rock climbing in Railay (Thailand)

Relaxing on the paradise island, Gili Trawangan (Indonesia)

Other cool moments include:

White water rafting for my first time in Bali (Indonesia)

Doing yoga (India)

Seeing orangutans in the jungle (Indonesia)

Climbing an active volcano (Indonesia)

And the only two low-lights that come to mind were:

Sleeping on the filthy floor of an over-crowded Indian train

Getting sick with stomach issues

But, I wouldn’t trade those “bad” experiences for the world, because it’s all part of the experience. Plus, I love that so much of what I experienced can’t just be seen on the Discovery Channel or from the view of a car window. I had to work to get to these places (especially on the Annapurna Circuit!), but that made the satisfaction all the more worthwhile.

And now that I’m nearly home, there are definitely some things that I’m looking forward to, and others that I’ll miss dearly. I can’t wait for consistently hot showers. I’m glad that I won’t have to carry my own toilet paper everywhere I go, but crazily enough will miss public squatters (though not the spraying on toes part of it – yeah, I think it happened every time). I’m looking forward to drinking tap water once again and not buying another bottle of water for a really long time. I’m happy that I’ll get a fair price when I walk into any store (and not the “white price”), but will miss the overall cheaper prices. I’ll be glad that when someone yells “hello” at me, it’s because they want to actually say hi to me and not because they want to lure me into their store… or in their taxi… or to their bedroom. I’m happy to have a diverse selection of ethnic cuisines available to me again, but will miss the amazing street food (especially Indian food). I’ll be sad that rent for my future apartment will cost more than an entire day’s activities. And I’ll most certainly miss the under $10 massages.

In sum, I can’t reiterate just how fantastic of a time I had on my trip. But, I think I’m also leaving at just the right time. I’m not jaded by traveling yet and really, really excited to see my friends and family that I haven’t seen in months! I’m looking forward to being in a home again, and not changing a bed every few days. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m looking forward to the food… and to cooking and baking – good thing it’s Christmas! I’m also excited about the winter ski season – I’m moving to Colorado this winter at the very least to ski for the season while I focus on my job search, but will also be looking for work permanently there, so I’m looking forward to exploring a new region of the country and establishing a new life for myself there.

Thanks for reading y’all! Your comments and happiness for me definitely meant a significant amount and kept me going during those harder moments that I might have glossed over. Have a great holiday season! J

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Photos are of me climbing up the ropes of the granite face of Mt, Kinabalu and the sunrise view from the top, overlooking the granite crowns.

Before I write about my climb up Mt. Kinabalu, I have two stories that remind me of how Malaysian Borneo is still not quite as developed as the western world: First, on the drive from Kota Kinabalu to Mt. Kinabalu, we passed a car accident. Lots of cars had pulled over to watch and some were helping the injured driver, who, as we passed was lying in the shade and visibly quite bloody. About 30-40 minutes of driving later, we pass an ambulance headed towards the scene of the accident. About an hour and a half after that, finally at our destination, we pass the ambulance again – headed away from the accident. Basically, it made me appreciate how much faster our emergency personnel respond to such situations at home. Secondly, they love plastic bags here. You buy a pastry and it gets wrapped in plastic and then put in a plastic bag. Anytime you go to a store, you get a plastic bag. Well, I’m walking down the street today and saw a man holding a chicken in a plastic bag. Nope, not a dead chicken, but a real, live chicken. It made me chuckle!

Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in South East Asia and roughly half the height of Everest. Joanne, the Irish girl, Sam, the Canadian guy and I set off to climb Mt. Kinabalu on the day of the men’s Climbathon. The shorter route was closed until noon, as the Climbathon was going on, so we opted for a route that was 2km longer as we were allowed to leave in the morning. Given that it rains consistently every afternoon at around 1pm, we wanted to get as much hiking out of the way before the rain started coming down. Our hike was nice and scenic until it started raining, predictably at 1pm. I got completely drenched during the last hour and half to two hours of the hike and was happy for the hot shower at Laban Rata, which was our resting point for the night (~3200m). Our lodge was much nicer than I was expecting, complete with hot showers and really warm, comfortable beds. There were multiple all-you-can eat buffets, which I took full advantage of, as climbing definitely depleted my energy. We went to bed at 7:30pm and after a fitful night of sleep, woke up at 2:30am, ate breakfast and started hiking at 3. I made it to the summit at 5:30am (4095m), just in time for a stunning sunrise.

The last portion of the climb was all granite slabs – and there were ropes guiding the way the entire time. Sometimes you had to pull yourself up with the rope, and other times, it was just plain steep. It was a decent climb, but a slow and steady pace made it completely bearable. It took me a total of 8 hours to get to the top. Ok, so I did take a longer route up. But, compare that to a girl in my hostel who was 10th place in the Climbathon – she went up AND back down all in 4 hours. Crazy! Apparently Skyrunning (as it’s called) is very popular in the UK (where there are no mountains above 1000m to speak of), as many of the competitors are from the UK. Anyway, it makes the normal climb (which I did) look like a piece of cake when you look at some of the times people raced up and back in. Unfortunately, I must be getting old, as my knees and left ankle killed me on the way down. I think I twisted my ankle while surfing, because I’d get really sharp pangs of pain shooting up my leg if I stepped the wrong way. I only hope that everything gets in working order again before Nepal.

After the climb, I spent my last full day in Borneo at the beach. I went to a different, small island offshore and swam, read, ate, swam, read, swam, read, ate. It was incredibly relaxing and very beautiful. I think I’m (sadly) done with the beach now for at least a month – until I get to Thailand in December. But, my legs feel great and I’m ready for my 3 weeks of trekking in Nepal! I head to Singapore for a few days and then on to KL for a crazy day of transit: KL to Bangkok to Kolkata to Delhi. Next update will likely be from India or Nepal in very early November! Enjoy the fall weather at home – I thought about that today as I was lying on the beach, just trying to envision leaves crunching under my feet or the smell of mulling spices on the stove in my old apartment. So, happy fall to y’all back home! Also, thanks for all the emails and facebook comments – it’s really nice and encouraging to get news from home!

Beachin’ in Borneo

Pictures are of the Kota Kinabalu night market where I had delicious bbq tuna steak and of the sunset I saw while camping at a small offshore island. Next blog post will have cooler photos. And I’ll try to upload more to facebook too.

After parting ways with Niki at the KL airport, I hopped on my flight to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the province Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. My flight arrived around midnight and I was the only white person on my flight and the only white person in the airport. After over 5 weeks in Indonesia where I’d be automatically ushered to where I wanted to be by a commission-seeking local, I was completely ignored at the KK airport. Perhaps for most people, this would be a welcomed reprieve, but it just made me miss Indonesia. Of all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve come to realize that I really and truly absolutely adore developing countries. I much prefer the style of travel that they offer than more developed nations. Anyway, I hopped into my $15 cab, where I had to orderly queue in line and was dropped at my hostel. I have to pay for 1 night what I paid for my last 5 nights in Bali.

So, Borneo. I had expected untamed jungle, indigenous people, undiscovered off-shore islands, like Palau Tiga, where the first Survivor was filmed. Well, I was a bit surprised when I landed in Kota Kinabalu and discovered that it is a very developed city, the people are quite refined and the wealth of the local people is fairly apparent. KK isn’t too far from Brunei, where the world’s wealthiest man (until Bill Gates usurped him) lives. The wealth in this region is due to natural resources – offshore oil drilling and palm oil plantations. Borneo in general has a massive deforestation problem – the entire island (and mind you, this is the world’s 4th largest island) is on track to be 98% deforested by 2022. The natural jungle is cut down for rattan furniture and is replaced by rows upon rows of palm trees. As I’m sure you all remember from your science class days, any form of mono-cropping isn’t good for the environment and it’s particularly sad as Borneo is arguably one of the few places on earth with such biodiversity and many, many rare species. And gosh, just where will future episodes of Planet Earth be filmed?

Anyway, I’m digressing. As a result of it’s natural resources, this island is actually much wealthier than I anticipated and as a result, it has all the bells and whistles that a developed nation has. I wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu straight away – which at 4,095m is Southeast Asia’s highest mountain (the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea), but there’s a multi-day Climbathon going on, in which racers climb up the mountain in record times. So, I had to push my climb back a few days.

In the meantime, I decided to go camping on an off-shore island with Joanne, an Irish girl I’ve met and Sam, a 19 year old Canadian guy that tagged along. Joanne and I camped for 2 nights and Sam for only 1. The first Survivor was filmed just a few kilometers away from the island that we stayed on, which was pretty exciting. The sand was superfine and very comfortable for sleeping. We lounged, read, swam, snorkeled and ate way too many noodles and bread and peanut butter. It was nice having a bonfire on the beach – looking one direction was the vast South China Sea and a few islands in the distance, yet looking the other way were the bright city lights of Kota Kinabalu.

After 2 days of camping, Joanne and I headed to Mt. Kinabalu. We stayed in a 12-bed dorm that absolutely reeks of BO – and is the most I’ve paid for accommodation this entire trip – $10, including breakfast. As it turns out, everyone in our dorm, except us, is doing the climbathon. And, unbeknownst to us, we could’ve signed up for the climbathon and paid only $35, which let’s just say is a lot less than what we’re paying. But, we didn’t find that out until too late unfortunately. I don’t know how keen I’d be on running up the mountain. Next post I write, I’ll give an update on how the climb went.

Oh, and in other news, Niki just bought a ticket to India and will be joining me on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal! Woohoo! I’ll be doing that trek with Dean (my boss from Cushman and Wakefield), my sister and now Niki. At this point, I just can’t wait to get to India and Nepal!

Melaka into Sumatra

I spent one night in Melaka, which is a really cute UNESCO World Heritage site with a charming Chinatown and plenty of Singaporean tourists. The highlight was walking through the night market, trying some local snacks and watching a world record holder put his finger through a coconut (both shell AND husk). I wanted to included a video of this feat, but unfortunately it’s taking WAY too long.

Then, I hopped on a ferry to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Waiting to board the ferry, I met my first American, Niki and a Dutch couple, Elric and Monique. The four of us immediately hit it off and we’ve been together ever since. Niki is not only the first American I’ve met, but also happens to be unemployed. She’s quite well-traveled and we definitely have a lot in common. We stayed for a few hours in the town of Dumai and were picked up by the local English teacher who brought us to his school so we could speak English with his students – we were impromptu English teachers! We also helped package some food for poor people in the region. It was a very fulfilling way to spend an afternoon that otherwise would’ve been passed at yet another non-descript bus station. We took the rickety local bus to the town of Bukittingi. The best part was the kids – there were tons of them on a long, overnight bus ride and they were all so obedient and just broke into enormous grins whenever any of us looked at them. The bus ride was advertised as only 10 hours, but ended up being 15 hours, probably due in part to the frequent stops.

It’s Ramadan (it ends on Sept. 20th!) and Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic nation. Our bus ride included stops at 4 in the morning for everyone to eat before sunrise… and a stop at 5 something in the morning for the first of their required 5 daily prayers. It’s quite loud – in the mornings, at my hotel, I’ve been woken by the 5am prayer session that is broadcast throughout the entire town.

Mom and Dad – skip this paragraph. Once we got settled in Bukittingi, we rented motorbikes. I’ve been on them before, but have never driven one. We rented two, and I got to drive. It was manual, so it took some getting used to, but in the end, I was fine. We rode out through a nearby canyon and out into the countryside. We stopped at a little roadside shack for a drink and the drink was only $0.20! Gotta love Indonesia! The next day we did the same thing, but rode to see some waterfalls and go swimming. After getting a flat tire (from running over a nail), I managed to give myself a nice large Indonesian tattoo as Niki and I were trying to back our motorbike off the road. I treated it for a bit on my own and finally went to the “hospital.” My trip to the ER cost me a whopping $12 dollars (including antibiotics). At least with wounds of this nature, they’re quite accoustomed to dealing with them.

Malaysia is truly Asia!

The tourism slogan for Malaysia is “Malaysia is truly Asia.” And you know what? They’re right – it is! I feel that this country is the most comprehensive “blend” of the various Asia cultures that I’ve seen. First off, this is a Muslim country (and it’s Ramadahan), so you see woman in burkhas everywhere. I thought I’d have to dress more conservatively, but fortunately, there are plenty of Indian woman dressed in saris and western clothing and plenty of Chinese in western clothing as well, so I don’t feel out of place in my tank tops, which is a huge relief considering that it’s REALLY hot here.

Malaysia, in a nutshell, is fantastic. I don’t really know what my expectations were, but aside from Singapore (which I’ve yet to visit) and Hong Kong (I’ve not yet been), it’s definitely the most developed country in south east Asia. The roads are well-maintained, most bathrooms have toilet paper (!!), you can drink the tap water, and it all-in-all is really orderly. Lest I think I’m in a western country, it still definitely has tinges of a developing country, probably especially in the backpacker ghettos that I frequent.
I’ve spent two solid days in Kuala Lumpur, just relaxing, using the internet (a lot), walking around and going up to the skybridge on the Petronas Towers. The pictures are of the Petronas Towers, the worlds’ tallest buildings until Taipei 101 usurped them in 2004. The second picture is a view from the skybridge downwards. I ended up spending a long while in Starbucks for the free wifi. However, I felt obliged to buy a drink, so I bought a Tazo tea for about $3.50, which is what I would spend at home. The sad thing is, that’s what I pay for a night of lodging. But the air-conditioning was a welcomed respite.
My sister is quite wise and says that it takes a week to really settle into being on vacation. I think she’s onto something, because for the first week, I was rushing (well I was hurrying to meet up with my friend Becca), but even after that, it was go-go-go, which is my normal way of traveling. But now, I think I’ve finally achieved a more relaxed pace. I realize that I have more than enough time to do the things I’ve left to do (Sumatra, Bali/Lombok and Borneo) before I head to Nepal, and it’s really relaxing just taking it slow. Tomorrow I’ll head to Melaka before making my way by ferry to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Peninsular Malaysia

Getting into Malaysia, I headed straight to Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia. An animated French woman that I met on my mini-bus served as my impromptu guide, and she promptly pointed me in the direction of a nice hotel. Then, she and I went to eat some delicious Indian food (masala thosai served on a large banana leaf which is pictured above) with a very tattooed British/Canadian man. Sometimes while traveling you meet the likes of him. He absolutely disdained anything that most of us deem as a normal life and applauded himself to the point of being really annoying for being a perma-nomad. Now, I love traveling for the experience, the food, the people I meet, but I also love returning home for the comforts provided there, and I don’t think that makes me a boring person or less of a person, but he made it seem that way.

But, once that was done, then I had a knock on my door and my friend Becca and her boyfriend Theis had arrived! It was so great to see a familiar face and Becca and I have traveled a bit together – Mexico, China, roadtrips all over the Midwest – and we are definitely two peas in a pod when it comes to well, a lot of things, but especially traveling. It was great to see her and meet her boyfriend and have some familiar faces for a few days.

Penang was great for the food. My friend Des recommended some great food, on which we imbibed. My favorite, aside from the fact that I can get roti with EVERY single meal, was the cendol, which is made of strands of sweetened pea flour layered on top of crushed ice, coconut milk and a brown sugar syrup. Delicious!

After Penang, we headed to the Cameron Highlands where it was cold at night! This is the closest to the equator I’ve ever been and being able to wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt at night was a welcomed change from the unyielding heat and humidity of the lowland regions. We went on a self-guided hike through the area (it seems to be a big tourist destination for locals, as there are loads of tea plantations and strawberry farms). Our hike was great – through the thick of the jungle, and a good reminder how much the Annapurna Circuit is going to absolutely kick my butt. We ate phenomenal street food for dinner – all of our tasting a bit of this and some of that cost us well under $2 per person. We stayed for about $3 a night, so I’m happy to say I haven’t burst my budget yet. The plane flights to Borneo and around Indonesia might be a different story…

After the Cameron Highlands, I left Becca and Theis and headed to Taman Negara, which, at over 130 million years old is the world’s oldest rainforest. I went on a night safari, which was just a couple of us driving around in a 4WD jeep while our guide shone a bright light to stop animals in their tracks. We did see some animals, but it was a tad disappointing. Riding on the back of a jeep through the palm plantations and watching the nearly full moon was an experience unto itself though. The next day, I went hiking in the national park – it boasts the world’s longest canopy walk (40m above ground and 450m long). It was cool and despite its height and length, felt pretty sturdy. The picture is of me on the canopy walkway. It’s disgusting but it’s really hot and I got really sweaty (which you unfortunately can also see). I was going to stay longer here, but internet was really expensive and most activities were expensive (ie visiting a village and using a blowpipe for $13). I’ve done things like that before and opted against it. Instead, I headed to Kuala Lumpur for some good quality internet time. I still have to apply for jobs while I’m traveling and today is a great day for that.

Arrived at Long Last!

After nearly 40 hours of travel (Chicago -> Kansas City -> Los Angeles -> Taipei -> Hong Kong -> Bangkok), I arrived in the heat and humidity of Bangkok. After finding a room for the night ($6), I immediately set off to Khao San Road in search of some banana roti, which is pictured here. This is my favorite Thai snack by far (and totally for the tourists, so its authenticity can be argued, but I don’t care because it’s downright delicious). I ran some errands (bought a guidebook and a jump drive) and had dinner with a guy I met on the bus in from the airport. For all you LOST fans out there, this guy was literally a doppelganger for Charlie from the show. I went to sleep early and woke at an ungodly hour (thank you jet lag). The next day I just chilled in Bangkok with a couple of guys that I met. We spent the day eating, drinking and talking. It was very relaxing and much needed before my 24 hour bus ride to Penang, Malaysia.

Then, I hopped on a night bus to a town in southern Thailand so I could make my way overland to Malaysia. The bus for backpackers is a VIP bus, which means the seats recline, there’s a couple of movies that they show, it’s air-conditioned and it’s filled with other backpackers. Well, the one empty seat on the bus was next to me and a little while into the bus ride, I get woken up with a reserved sign that I’m to place on the seat next me. Fine. Shortly thereafter, the one Thai person gets on the bus and sits next to me. I had my blanket on me, his was behind his head. He grabs my blanket and starts wrapping it around his legs. I tap him on the shoulder and hand him his blanket. He just nods and then puts his blanket over both of us. Fine…. UNTIL I feel his hand pressing against my leg. So I kind of shake it off. Two minutes later, the same thing. And so we repeat the process for quite some time. Finally, he gets a little more aggressive, so I do too in my shaking him off. Finally, I sit up and indicated with my whole arm that he needs to keep to himself in his seat. After a bathroom stop at a non-descript locale, I make sure to take my own blanket. Long story short, he proceeds to keep putting his hand on me and at one point tries to spoon as he puts his hand on my waist. I don’t know if he’s just trying to cop a feel or steal my money belt, but basically I just told him “No” louder and louder and would pick up his hand and drop it back on his lap while saying “No touch.” He finally dozed off. It’s not that big of a deal, but just kind of a hassle to deal with.

And now I’m in Penang, Malaysia which is reknowned for it’s food – a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. I had a delicious Indian dinner – served on a large banana leaf no less! And now I’m just waiting for my friend Becca and her boyfriend Theis to show up!