27.01.2013 - 10.02.2013 35 °C
To bobble-head elephants with their trunks held in the air were dancing on the dashboard of a cramped mini van. I was sharing the backseat with a couple of giant Swedes, one of whom was falling asleep on my shoulder. Sigur Ros was blaring through my headphones while I ignored the uncomfortable situation by contemplating life on the road.
This was how I crossed the border into Malaysia. After 14 hours packed into the back of a series of four overbooked minibuses I was tired and cranky but looking forward to a few weeks in a country I knew very little about. All I had been told about Malaysia was that it was modern and a bit more expensive than other SE Asian countries. I had a lot to learn.
I arrived in Georgetown on the Island of Penang after sunset and checked into my Japanese themed hostel, a place called Ryokan which boasted that it was not a backpacker hostel but a 'flashpacker' hostel. I didn't understand the term so I asked the desk clerk to explain. He informed me that a flashpacker was a quasi-backpacker who pays a little more to stay in nicer hotels and hostels, eat fancy meals and carries a good pair of shoes to get into the chic clubs. I can't say I fully agreed with or understood the phrase. Nonetheless, I came away from the conversation with the conviction that I am definitely not a flashpacker...
As soon as I dropped my bags I set out to sample some of Penang's famous street food. It was late but the Georgetown vendors serve up tasty snacks late into the night. As I went from vendor to vendor I was surprised by the cultural mish mash of cuisine. There were several types of Chinese, Indian, Muslim, indonesian and western foods. The vendors competed for business often telling customers (in perfect English) to avoid certain ethnic groups who were known for cheating tourists. The chinese told us to avoid the Indian vendors. The Indian vendors told us to avoid the malays and so on. Occasionally one vendor would verbally berate another for stealing his business and little spats were common. After spending a little time in the country, I came to understand how this little vendor market could easily be understood as a microcosm of the social situation in the Malaysia. The country is home to several distinct cultures who quite clearly do not always live in harmony.
I perused the bewildering selection of quicks eats and eventually I decided on some hokkien noodles. As I was looking for a place to sit I was called over to a table by a couple of guys who recognized me from the hostel. One was a funny British police man named Rob in his mid thirties who had quit his job and rented out his house to travel former British colonies. The other was a younger Turkish engineer named Murat who was four months into a world tour. Murat was the first Turkish backpacker I had ever met. We enjoyed some fantastic food and a beer each while comparing some road stories.
The next day we all met in the hostel lobby, took a bus up to Penang hill for a view of the island and walked around the city. Parts of Georgetown felt like some of the old city centers in China with old broken down colonial style buildings adorned with red lanterns and Chinese signs. Other areas felt very western sporting large shopping malls filled with brand name clothing, fast food and electronics.
That night we caught a few beers at one of the many reggae bars in town. Local bar owners in southeast Asia have come to realize that to attract young tourists all you need to do is play Bob Marley's 'Legend' on repeat, sell cheap beer and hang a red, green and yellow banner out front the bar. A sure formula. Thus, the spread of reggae bars throughout the region is endemic. Not that I am complaining. I, like most people, enjoy the reggae vibe and this particular bar was a good travelers meeting place.
The following morning I slept in and missed a bus for the first time since I arrived in Asia. Luckily, I booked through a travel agent who was able to put me on another one heading to Cameron highlands later that morning free of charge. Penang had been sweltering but as the bus climbed up into highlands the temperature dropped significantly offering a nice relief from the typical heat. I shared the minibus with one other traveller, a friendly Dutch girl in her mid twenties named Stefanie. We chatted about backpacking for a while then decided to tour the highlands together for a couple days.
We arrived in Tanah Rata in the evening and, after booking into a ten bed dorm, found some Indian food. We then hit the convenience store for some ice cream, a deck of cards and a small bottle of cheap vodka; three objects that characterized the rest of my nights in Tanah Rata. During the day, Stefanie and I tried hiking to a tea plantation before realizing that what we thought was a trail on the map was actually a highway. We caught the bus instead to one of the famous Boh plantations a few kilometers away. It was more impressive than I expected. A misty valley of super green hills covered in a patchwork of tea bushes. After enjoying a cup of the jasmine green tea we made our way back to town for some more Indian food, cards and vodka. I didn't get a great night sleep due to a group of loud swedes who were up all night partying on the patio so I was pretty tired when I caught my bus the next morning to Kuala Lumpur. I was also a little light headed but I figured it was just from the vodka the night before. The morning bus ride was full of beautiful scenery as we made our way through the misty rainforested hills of the highlands and eventually landed in Kuala Lumpur mid afternoon.
KL city center was very modern with large fancy brand name shopping malls on every corner and eight lane highways dissecting the impressive skyline.
I took an hour to walk around the china town before I jumped on the skytrain to Petaling Jaya outside of KL to meet my couchsurfing host. In case you have not heard of it before, couchsurfing is a online community of travelers and hosts. If you create a profile, you can apply to hosts in a surprising number of cities around the world for a place to stay and/or a friend to hang out with. Since hosts are travelers too, they are usually sympathetic to your cause and interested in meeting like minded people. It's a well established and ingenious service.
My host was a very thoughtful and kind freelance writer named Catherine. Her and her roommate Kevin, a popular DJ on one of Malaysia's most listened too English radio stations, were very welcoming and lots of fun. As soon as I arrived at their suburban flat, Catherine and I began chatting and she told me some interesting things about Malaysia. She described Malaysia's three main ethnic groups: the muslim Malays, the Chinese Malaysians and the Indian Malaysians. From her perspective, the country was dominated by the muslim malays who held political power and instituted laws which granted Malays special treatment. She said that Chinese Malaysians must pay more for government services and have a difficult time gaining positions of power within the government. She went as far as to say a system of apartheid is present in the country where the Muslim majority oppress other ethnic groups.
Since I knew so little about malaysia, I found this all very interesting, but unfortunately, mid-conversation I was hit with a horrible headache which forced me to lie down. I thought it was just from lack of sleep so I took a couple painkillers and napped for an hour. When I awoke I felt better so Catherine and Kevin treated me to some excellent street hawker food. Soon after finishing the meal, however, my headache returned with full force and I felt unusually fatigued. I figured I still needed to catch up on sleep and just went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up in a cold sweat with a fever, a splitting headache and a bad stomach ache. I took some more pills and managed to sleep a bit but the next morning I awoke early with muscle pain in almost every part of my body. I soon realized that I had caught some kind of virus and hoped it was just a bad flu that would resolve itself with rest.
But in the days that followed my symptoms only worsened. They would come in waves. Sometimes I would feel a bit better and decide to join Catherine or Kevin on a small trip to the mall or to a movie. But once there I would be hit with another wave of symptoms which would force me to catch a cab home. I started running a high fever and was waking up at night in copious amounts of sweat. Even in the sweltering heat of KL I was getting chills and I could not eat without feeling nauseas. One time I collapsed in a restaurant and vomited all over the floor after only one sip of soup.
I finally allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was more serious than a nasty flu and made a trip to a clinic. The doctor advised me to take a course of antibiotics to determine if it was an infection. I don't like taking antibiotics so I declined the drugs and decided to move into a hotel room to wait out the symptoms and find a second opinion.
I had been communicating with my mom about the illness so she put me up in a fancy downtown hotel and convinced me to get a blood test for tropical diseases. When I went to the hospital the doctor put me on an IV to replace lost fluids and told me to wait one hour to get the results. When he returned one hour later, he carried with him a sheet of paper which confirmed that I had dengue fever. I was astonished, both because I didn't think my symptoms were bad enough for dengue and because I couldn't believe my bad luck. I guess I had been careful with mosquitos in rural areas where malaria is more common but more careless in urban areas where I thought I was safer. Little did I know that urban areas are actually where dengue mosquitos dwell.
The doctor offered me a bed but I declined saying that I had hotel nearby. As I exited the hospital I was very surprised by the $150 bill I was given for a simple blood test and IV drip.
The doctor ordered me to return the next day for another platelet count but, after almost a week since it began, I could already tell I was through the worst of the sickness. A couple more tests, a few of days of sleeping and watching movies in the hotel and the symptoms eventually subsided. I was only left with a tiredness that lingered for another week or so.
When I felt strong enough to move on I checked out of my cushy room, threw my bag over my shoulder (it felt quite a bit heavier than usual) and headed to the bus station to continue the journey. Next stop, Singapore.
The five hour bus to Singapore was ridiculously comfortable. The sparse group of people on board each had a small TV and a seat which folded down almost completely into a bed. Definitely the nicest bus I had ever been on. When I arrived at the Singapore border I made my way through a slow moving line at immigration. But when I made it to the other side I could not find my bus. It had disappeared. I asked a local worker who informed me that the buses only wait 20 minutes before leaving for the city. I thought this was pretty ridiculous as 20 minutes is barely enough time to make it through immigration even if there is no wait time. The worst part was that I had no Singapore dollars to take the public bus and their was no ATM or exchange at the border. I was stuck. I just started asking random bus drivers if they could give me a ride into the city center but to no avail. Eventually a local woman saw I was in trouble and offered to give me a ride to a place where I could change some money. She was with a group of British students who were doing some type of internship in Singapore so I jumped in their van and got a ride to a mall where I was able to get some cash and take the subway to my couchsurfing host's apartment.
In KL I had organized a CS host more for the experience but in Singapore I simply did not want to spend $35 for a hostel bed. My host was a Philippino IT specialist named Wendy who worked from her 19th floor apartment just outside the city center. The apartment complex was really nice with a couple large swimming pools. She shared with four others so the flat was a little dirty but still comfortable. When I arrived late in the evening she told me the spare mattress was dirty and I would just be sleeping in her bed. I thought it a bit odd but I didn't really care. Then she invited me to go clubbing with her and her friends. I was still recovering from the dengue, however, and thought I night out in the clubs was not a good idea so I just made myself comfortable and stayed in. She had a large flat screen TV with satellite so I watched a couple Hollywood flicks before falling asleep. I awoke in the morning to find that she had never come home. Around 9AM she rumbled in wearing the same clothes she had left in the night before and cursing about how she was late for work. I just got dressed and left to go explore the city.
Singapore is a bit of an enigma in southeast Asia. The streets are cleaner than anywhere on the planet, everything from the public transit to the queues run smoothly, the skyline is sleek and the population is bizarre mix of uber westernized Chinese descendants. Unfortunately, the city also seems to lack a strong culture and at times feels somewhat artificial. Even the china town and little india were just too clean and disneylandish to feel real.
Since I was in the city during Chinese new year the streets were empty and many businesses were closed. I just walked through the beautiful modern buildings and snapped a few pictures of the skyline from the harbor. With the city's outrageous prices, looking at the skyline was about all I could afford to do but I nonetheless found it to be quite impressive. None of the buildings are particularly large but they are well designed and all work well together. From the marina it looks as though someone designed the entire skyline at once.
On Chinese new year's eve my host took me to a party at a Nigerian man named Ola's home. The party was boring but the Ola was a great cook and served up some tasty snack food. The next day my host went to visit relatives and I stayed in the room watching movies until it was time to catch my flight. After watching both Kung Fu Panda movies I made my way to Singapore's ultra modern airport, ate some fast food and caught my flight to Borneo. My Malaysian peninsula experience was complete.
Even though mainlaind Malaysia and Singapore were some of the most modern and comfortable places I have travelled, my couple weeks there ended up being quite a challenge. I was allowed many western comforts I had not experienced since being back in Canada but had to deal with a tough eastern illness. It was a rough week.
With the dengue aside, however, I found the social situation on the peninsula to be quite interesting. A mix of distinct cultures was apparent throughout the region but the cultures did not always mix harmoniously. There was clearly some age old tensions which have yet to be resolved.
Everyone spoke english well and enjoyed western niceties yet many seemed to cling strongly to their cultural heritage. The large modern shopping centers were outfitted with places of worship, even many McDonalds had a halal menu and the air-conditioned pizza huts were full of woman in hijabs. It's a confusing place at times and, perhaps due to the overwhelming western influence, not one of my top destinations but I am glad I visited and would likely return if given the chance.