The palette of colors that paint Penang Malaysia are incredible. Even midday when the tropical sun beats the rainbow hues into submission, just a hint of shade is all that is necessary to add vibrancy back into a scene. Undoubtedly the most photogenic locale I’ve ever experienced, it’s difficult to pick favorites from all the shots I took on my first, far too short, visit to the island. Some I’ll share in a tale soon to be posted, others I’ll use to bracket that story. This one I call “She Talks’. I loved the colors, but more so that it shows the world over, when the Mrs. talks, you shut up and listen.
The travel bug bit at the same time that Malaysia Airlines was advertising their Circle Asia air pass: roundtrip air between Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur plus 21 days of consecutive travel to any or all of 21 qualifying cities in Asia. A great and cheap way to do some serious travel within Southeast Asia. It took a bit of planning, there were restrictions to work through and booking flights was a chore, but what a great chance to see major portions of the area for a damn cheap price.
So where to go? Well obviously the first stop for me was Kuala Lumpur (KL). Also on the agenda, Singapore, Phuket, Bangkok, and Kota Kinabalu. (KK) Huh? Yep, figuring out where and how long to take up my three weeks left me a bit short (or long, depending on how you look at it) so my final choice (though not final destination) was KK. And for no better reason than it being the best place to fly from to get to Sabah. And why would you want to go to Sabah, you ask? The Orangutans, dummy!
Malaysia’s Sabah state in Borneo is home to one of two dwindling natural habitats of these wonderful apes. The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary outside of Sandakan offers visitors the opportunity to interact with these magnificent creatures. And if you have an extra 3 to 4 days to kill on a trip, what better way than to spend some time with some of our closest relatives. Or so I thought.
I departed from KL for the short flight to KK, with a day to see the local sights before flying on to Sabah (airline schedules, ya know?) With the exception of the Hotel Shangrila, and resting in the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever experienced in my life, KK was nothing to write home about. But then it was never meant to be anything more than a way station for me on my journey to play with the apes. Early the next morning I headed off to the airport for the 45 minute flight to Sandakan.
Now the main reason touri come to Kota Kinabalu is to climb the mountain (of the same name), the highest peak in SE Asia, and to take in the wondrous views from its summit. Not quite as athletically minded, I paid an extra $30 for a comfy first class seat on the flight to Sandakan and started my day gazing through the plane’s window at small tree covered islands rising from the turquoise waters of the Sulu Sea, and the mountain, with its myriad valleys draped in clouds as though a misty snow had gathered in each basin. We soared along its edges and I was treated to a picture perfect view of the summit, while peacefully sipping coffee from bone white china. My kind of Adventure Tourism!
The plane was three quarters full. Locals travelling home for the most part, with a decent mix of white folk, obviously all headed to the orangutan reserve. Upon landing, the locals were met by family and friends, the touri by large air conditioned buses and tour guides to shepherd them through the day . . . and then there was me. Fortunately there were also some taxis, and the driver was quite pleased with snagging a fare for the 23 km ride to the reserve. Had I signed on for the guided tour by bus, I could have got to know some touri from Germany. Instead, I made friends with a Malaysian cab driver who took great pride in pointing out the sights along the way (the local gas station, the local grocery store . . . not a lot of excitement on Sabah). He also booked himself for the return trip, and picked up his 12 year old son to join us for the trip back to the airport . . . a chance for the future cabbie to practice his English.
The beautiful, humid day that greeted me at the airport became a wet, humid day by the time we got to the reserve. And, like a dummy, for the one day jaunt, I’d not packed rain gear, an umbrella, or even a hat. Soaked, I sat through the Sanctuary video in a nicely air conditioned room (the movie is required before you are turned loose onto the trails) and then headed out with the masses for a 15 minute hike through the jungle to the feeding station.
And finally, the orangutans! They know the food will be there, and even have the times down pat. You know they are coming by the crashing noises the large males make as the herd thrashes its way through the trees to the feeding area. Now having a load of touri watch them dine is not an unusual occurrence to the apes, so they take it all pretty nonchalantly. In fact, they do as much observing as do the humans. On raised wooden platforms (us not them) we watched while they established the pecking order for the milk and banana breakfast. In the trees and playing on the ropes (them, not us) they watched fifty humans stand in the pouring rain with smiles on their faces. Now who do you think learned more about the other species?
Oh, the interaction between the humans and the apes? That was it . . . looking at each other. Took three days, six hours of flying and two hours of driving to spend about a half an hour in the rain with these guys. Was it worth it? Yep, and I’d go do it again. And probably will.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it is known locally, is the capitol of Malaysia and worthy a stop when visiting SE Asia. It boasts both the old and new, the familiar and unfamiliar. I won’t bore you here with all of the things you can do and see in the area, but will bore you with one of my favorites.
My first visit to KL was a mere three weeks after 9/11. Malaysia is an Islamic country. So getting off the plane and seeing folk in Muslim dress was a bit unnerving. At first. But the people of Malaysia are wonderful and friendly, no where that I went did I ever receive poor treatment because I was white and obviously American. If anything, the opposite was true.
Typical of me, I picked a hotel close to the major night market area. Hey, what can I say? I love night markets in Asia, for both their unbelievable bargains and for the local color. KL’s main night market is in the China Town area, with its signature lantern-lined streets and pre-war shop houses, now oddly complemented by palm trees and modern roofing aimed at sheltering shoppers from Kuala Lumpur’s heavy rains. Nevertheless, the area retains its old world charm when it transforms, come rain or shine, into a bustling night market: Petaling Street, where a vibrant mix of Chinese, Nepalese and Burmese traders all vie for attention selling jewelry, herbal medicines, dried food, designer T-shirts, handbags and wallets. Knock-offs and fakes abound. Striking a bargain is not always easy. The trick is to throw in a few local terms like “Murah sikit?” (A little cheaper?) or “Mahal sangat!” (Too expensive!) and pretend to leave in a huff. Sure enough, a voice will call out behind you. “Okay lah, Okay lah! Ow-mach-you-wan?”
The difference between this street market and those in Bangkok, is that the prices are even better here. And the come on starts with, “Sir”, instead of, “Hey, Mistah!”. What’s the same is their pointing out the obvious, “Sir, watches for you, Sir!” from the guy standing next to a table full of . . . you guessed it . . . watches! And the T shirt vendors all tagged on, “Big Sizes” for me, which made me first think I really needed to go on a diet until I realized, gazing over everyone else’s heads, that the reference was to my height and not width.
At what amounted to under $2, I picked up a few pirated DVDs, the obligatory T shirt (BTW, Big Size, was still a bit small for me) and spent most of the time wandering. Ready for a break and some food, I back tracked to Jalan Sultan where I’d previously spied a whole line of sidewalk restaurants. Being the picky type of person I am, I found an empty table in the middle of the line of stalls and grabbed it. Turned out it didn’t really matter because the waiter went and grabbed food from any and all of the restaurants.
The menu was about 20 pages long. In Malaysian. But there were some pictures, so after getting a beer, I pointed out a picture of some chicken satay. “Small, Medium, Large?” was the waiter’s reply. Mmmmmmm, this could be fun! So I ordered a small and quickly pointed to a picture of a beef dish. Small again. And Small shrimp, small noodles, small fish, small whatever that is . . . the waiter caught on. “You like hot?’ A nod, he scribbled. “You like sweet?” more scribbling, “vegetables? . . . you get the picture. And I soon had a table filled with delectable treats. And I do mean filled. And the food kept coming.
So there I sat, relaxing outdoors at a table a mere few feet away from the passing crowds, pigging out while I people watched. And the people watched back. Guess a single diner with enough food to feed a family of three on his table was an amusing sight . . . the kids sure got a laugh out of it! The entire meal came to 55 ringetts, which is about $18. And I was stuffed. A memorable meal, not only for the food, but the fun of making a spectacle out of myself. Ask me about KL, and I’ll immediately think first of that streetside dining evening.