This Lunar New Year, Trinh and I spent 5 days in Malaysia’s Penang (wiki) Island and Kuala Lumpur (KL) cities. It was Trinh’s first time in Malaysia and my second trip since visiting Lang Kawi Island and KL in 2013 before heading to India. (Quick blog on Lang Kawi Island, 2013) Living in Asia since 2012, I have normalized seeing surprising things, grown accustomed to being an observer I stopped writing my thoughts. This year I hope to re-start blogging to capture this moment and maybe inspire others to consider traveling to Malaysia.
New Year’s Eve, Thursday, Feb 15th
Trinh and I spent the daytime with her parents watching TV and chitchatting. Each day I spend with her family improves my Vietnamese a lot. The weekend before we visited her Grandma in Can Tho City (wiki) and I spent the whole weekend speaking Vietnamese. In the evening, Trinh wanted to head into Saigon to take photos with her Ao Dai. Then Trinh, Pontus, Thanh, and I sat by an outdoor restaurant along the walking street and watched thousands of families visit the flower show to take photos with the flowers and their traditional clothing. Thanh, Trinh, and I repeated our annual Tet photo. I was serendipitously wearing the same shirt, gifted to me from my friends in the Philippines. Then Trinh and I returned to her home and waited until midnight for the fireworks to ring in the Year of the Dog. Trinh left the house and ceremonially walked back in. As a zodiac Monkey, Trinh brought the family good luck, by entering and exiting the house first in the New Year. For a synopsis of Tet traditions please read this post from Tet 2017.
Tet Day 1: Friday Feb 16th
The next morning before leaving for the airport we all went to a Buddhist temple to ring in the New Year. It was the end of a stressful month for me and the constant contrasts of the city were wearing on me by this point. I couldn’t wait to get to Malaysia and get away from the stress factors here. Then we rode with an agitated taxi driver through streets filled with lion dancers (Youtube) to the airport and flew off to Malaysia. I was happy to step into the airport and away from the annoying traffic and stark inequality in Saigon.
Our first destination for four nights would be the former British colony of Penang Island. It is wrong to begin a place’s history with the British – maybe it is a uniquely American view of national history to start with the British. Before the arrival of the British East India Company, which established Penang’s main city Georgetown, the island was a part of the Malaya’s myriad of Islamic kingdoms and ancient Chinese & Indian trading routes.
For 150 years the British took the ports of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore to control the spice, palm oil, and rubber trades out of Southeast Asia and administered them separately from the Malay kingdoms as the Strait Settlements. If you look at the map you’ll see how holding these islands was geostrategic for “ruling the waves”. All of that is over now and the island is a major tourist destination because of its tropical jungles, diverse influences, artistic community, and historic appeal.
We arrived at the Penang Airport and breezed through security and onto a one-hour bus ride from the south of the island to the north. The Penang’s infrastructure is the best I have seen in Southeast Asia. With elevated highways, clean streets, courteous pedestrians, and logical traffic. I could take a breath and look out the window at Malaysia’s two popular local car brands Perodua and Proton shuffling obediently through the city streets. These are the only Southeast Asian cars brands I am aware of. Penang was so advanced and nice. We couldn’t believe how quickly and predictably the cars could move, assured by a social compact amongst the drivers to follow the rules.
Ironically, when Trinh and I arrived in Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage city, we had trouble crossing the roads. We had forgotten how to follow the rules. Saigon has a totally different way of crossing the roads, for example, a week earlier a driver had made a complete stop for me to cross the road in Saigon and the unordinary gesture threw me off so much that I angry shouted” What the hell!” at the driver. Unlike Saigon, American and Malaysian roads are ruled by the tyranny of pedestrians and it felt weird to be back on top of the food chain again in Penang. The most unsettling thing was that in Penang there was a separate time just for pedestrians to cross at a crosswalk. At this time no other lanes of traffic were moving. When it first occurred we were confused and didn’t move–thinking it must’ve been a glitch in the traffic signals. We had to wait for it to come around again before we realized what was going on.
Our first impression of Georgetown was that it was much like Vietnam’s classical port town Hoi An and the British relics still WASPing about in Myanmar’s Yangon. Georgetown was a confluence of a 1800s Chinese port and London’s Whitehall area, both sprinkled with mosques, small cars, and tropical fruits. We said to each other, “o! this city is like Yangon”. We imagined if we ever went to London we would say the same thing to gray coated Brits busily on their way, “o! this city is like Yangon” and come across like lost snobs. We got to the city’s harbor and sat with the locals and tourists to watch the sunset.
I don’t think I can properly describe how diverse Malaysia is. The majority of the people are tan colored Malays, statistically followed by Chinese and Tamils. The latter two were drawn to Malaysia by global trade networks in the Silk Road, the British Empire’s labor migration schemes, and dismal with China’s 20th century. That said the nation a Federation of Islamic kings and with a majority Malay population. Islam traveled to Malaysia from South Asia when traders from East and West Bengal introduced the faith as a means to make social compacts with the Malay people. Before the arrival of Islam, many Malay followed their ancient traditions and Hinduism adopted from trade with India. This connection between India and Malaysia is truly ancient in that Malaysia appears in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, as the kingdom of Sri Vijaya and even contributes troops to the epic’s final battle.
Mansplaining aside, we walked to the coastline and observed the local people hanging out. We noticed that people tended to hang out based on their gender and mother tongue- like in the USA. Since this was a holiday weekend in Malaysia too, there were many people enjoying the coastline park. We didn’t spot many Chinese people out on the streets that night because during the first day of the New Year one shouldn’t go out – it can lead to bad luck.
The Chinese population in Penang celebrates the New Year with lion dances, firecrackers, and endless games of mahjong- which we can hear clicking as we walk past their homes. Trinh and I took a walk through Georgetown’s central district and fell into a pretend game of spy vs. spy. We were shooting imaginary finger guns at each other and playing hide and seek when a huge set of firecrackers opened up just next to Trinh’s hiding spot and she ran out screaming. It was funny to see us have a mini-panic while the rest of the people were enjoying the New Year. When our heart rates lower, Trinh shared that firecrackers scare her family because the loud bangs bring back memories of another time. Her family says to her, “ you don’t know how lucky you are to live in a time without war”.
We thought that Georgetown was so hipster with derelict buildings becoming refashioned as cafes, street art, and funky hippies everywhere. We were a bit disappointed at first because this is what we have enough of in Saigon. We discovered some pretzel-cone ice cream and then walked around the city for a few hours. The highlight of our night walk was going into the British Fort alone and standing beside the cannons looking down on the pedestrians below. We had a sort of culture shock from Georgetown. We talked a bit to a British girl in the hostel who was studying at University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus, but this time I felt way too old to really connect with the “kids” in the hostel. We felt pretty darn old, compared to the European young guns all around us.
Tet Day 2: Saturday, Feb 17th
We awoke to the sound of loud firecrackers at 7AM in the street that morning. Then the crashing cymbals and drums of another lion dance. The Lions travel all around the city doing stuff. This was the third lion dance of the holiday so far. I’ve seen the dancing lions do everything from eat money, make babies, have babies, and do slapstick comedy. We slunked to our new favorite hipster café – the Mugshot (Youtube). The café was housed in a restored heritage building. We thought, “ o! we could have this in Saigon” and “o! this city is like Yangon”… but not
We ubered to the Penang National Park that covers the northwest corner of the island. It was beautiful to see the aqua blue Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the orderly traffic on the drive along the coastal cliffs. We set off on a two-hour hike along the coastal cliffs and jungle to Monkey Beach (Youtube); named for the monkeys who swim, steal, and enjoy monkey business among the tourists. The hike was magical. Four-foot-long monitor lizards swam through the ocean, monkeys swung silently in the trees, and the turquoise ocean and jungle vines perfectly complimented the warm air and the fresh oxygen. Living in a concrete jungle like Saigon, we appreciate fresh ripe oxygen. We swam for a bit in the ocean and had some simple and slow food on the beach. We loved the ocean air and the greenery – seeing greenery massages the eyes.
Finally, the stress of the year receded and we remembered that under underneath the thin veneer of work, expectations, and the ways we disappoint ourselves, we are still young and that we still want to explore and learn… more then we let ourselves remember.
Tired from the hike we hired a boat to take us out of the national park. We giggled because the trip that had taken us two hours to hike amounted to just a 5-minute boat ride. Like adults watching a children’s soccer game from the sidelines we commented to each other on how quickly boats moved, but inside we knew that we were just slow.
We bussed to Batu Ferringhi Penang’s largest and most commercialized beach. We sat by the waves on the back lawn of the Holiday Inn and waited to watch the sunset behind a mountain. We had culture shock because the beachgoers were so diverse. We had women covered in Abayas, white girls tanning in thongs, Malay women in hijabs, Indian women swimming while fully dressed, naked European children confidently exploring the sands, and large groups of bachelors from Nepal, Bangladesh, and India enjoying their time off from work during the national holiday on the beach. There were also horses and camels on the beach rented for rides. There was also an amazing Starbucks in the sands. (Youtube) The Sun set beautifully and created a warm orange backlight for the mountain. As the dusk settled into darkness and the stars came out, we walked to a restaurant on with tables on the sand and had dinner.
We watched three Russian fire spinners give a show and then walk among the crowd looking for donations. Frequenting Southeast Asian beaches, I’m accustomed to the fire spinning. The blond bearded spinner, who smiled more than a typical Russian told the crowd to be “ Be heppy without rehzon, life is a gaym”. I liked his platitude and we tipped him more for the sentiment than for regularly burning his teeth with lighter fluid. There are poor children on the streets of Saigon who blow fire every night and I never give them money, I guess they don’t appeal to that homegrown American goodness in me starving for platitudes. After dinner, we took an hour-long siding bus ride back to Georgetown. We ate some corn on the cob and went to bed. The bus ride was scary because we hadn’t been on normal speed roads in a long time.
Tet Day 2: Sunday, Feb 18th
We woke up and a professor acquaintance from Universiti of Sains Malaysia (USM) picked us up at the hostel and drove us to the popular chain café Old Town Coffee. There we had Laksa (Youtube) and chatted about higher education development. Then he took us on a driving tour through USM. The campus of USM was modern, green, and hilly. The campus shocked us in how much it looked like a university in the northeast of the USA. It was fun to pepper the professor with questions about Penang’s urban and economic development.
The takeaway point was that Hong Kongers and Singaporeans are investing heavily in property in Penang and property values have tripled in the last ten years. The unkempt heritage buildings are an policy mistake, because the government instituted rent controls too low for landlords to upgrade the sensative buildings in the UNESCO Heritage area. The restriction was lifted in the last decade and now the heritage buildings are being transformed into hotels and restaurants. From my observation. they are still primary residential.
After our tour with the Professor, Trinh and I ventured off to the Botanical Gardens. These days I’ve been wearing my grandfather’s Oakwood Friends School hat in commemoration of his 2nd birthdays since his death. I’ve become like my mother celebrating birthdays as memorials- understand the sentiments now. In the botanical garden, we came across a crumbling staircase leading up a hillside. I sensed a bit of adventure and the sound of a waterfall and I recommended that we start climbing the stairs.
This staircase turned into a three-hour hike up the famous Penang Hill. The first 1/3 of the hill was made of steps into that went off into a steep jungle hillside. We were exhausted with sweat after each two-minute interval and we had to rest and wring the sweat out of my shirt. Climbing a mountain at noon in a jungle was a bigger undertaking than what we had expected. We got to the first rest station and found ourselves in a retiree community of Chinese/Singaporeans who walked up and down the mountain regularly. My favorite old man there was in his eighties and he said me,
Old Man: Make sure you get down before sunset
Old Man: It’s the jungle
Me: Why are you carrying two walking sticks
Old Man: age
After the retiree rest station, we set off on to the 2nd part of the climb and grabbed on to ropes and metal railings to pull ourselves up the steep steps. Then we came to a street that only served SUVs taking tourists up the hill. So we spent two more wonderful hours walking up the hill along the car road. We were above the helicopters, below the eagles, and amongst larger long-tailed monkeys foraging in the trees. It was wonderful and exhausting, like setting up a Christmas tree, we finally came to a level of exhaustion and steepness that let us walk about 40 steps before having to rest. As we neared the top of the mountain the retirees became sparse. We were the only people on the road. When we arrived at the top of the hill, we victoriously raised our arms. Guess what was waiting for us on the top? Another lion Dance!
We stood at the observation deck above the hill and looked down at the city, jungle, and magnificent bridges connecting the island to the mainland. Then we took a special steep track train to the bottom. We agreed that the climb was the best thing we did during the entire trip, because it was impromptu, led us into the jungle, and it was a challenge that reminded us we were still young and capable.
When we reached the bottom we took an Uber to the Clan Jetties. Jetties are long docks that extended into the Malacca Straits so that wooden boats can port during low tide. We walked across the rickety old jetties to look back at the city and watch the sunset behind Penang Hill – the hill we had just climbed. Oddly, there was a dog breeder living on the jetty with a flock of pug pups for sale. Pugs CAN’T HANDLE the heat at the equator and were sweaty as a ham left in a damp fridge. (That is a backward metaphor for being hot)
After sunset, we walked to a pasta place, Coffee on the Table, and had pretty good food. Before turning in for the night we stopped at a café near our hostel and listened to a European girl play guitar and sing some soulful music.
Tet Day 2: Monday, Feb. 19th
In the morning Trinh and I went to visit the Penang office of SEAMEO (my organization). The location was impressive because it had a hotel, a pool, a sauna, a kindergarten, a convenience store, and many acres of land and classrooms. It was nice to talk to SEAMEO colleagues from throughout the region. They gave me a day planner as a small gift and I gave them some instant Vietnamese coffee in return. We were both pleased to receive the small gifts.
Then Trinh and I had another bowl of Laksa at a restaurant near our hostel. Then walking in the burning heat to the bus station to get tickets for tomorrow’s bus ride to Kuala Lumpur (KL). Then we ducked into a mall and had a Subway sandwich and cooled off in the air conditioning and the numbing global urban monoculture of a mall full of Chinese tourists amidst a shopping frenzy. We caught an Uber back to Penang National Park to hike through the jungle again to a private beach. Our driver was a young Malay boy who spoke freely about racial tension in high school, government corruption, and house prices. I enjoyed what he shared with me and was thankful that we could speak the same language and I could engage the people personally, not as a clownish actor miming my thoughts.
Trinh and Deren ventured into the jungle for another wonderful two hours among leaves larger than Trinh, carnivorous mosquitoes, vines fit for Tarzan, curious monkeys, snakes, waterfalls, and the breath giving essences of oxygen. We eventually came to a turtle-nesting beach with no one else on the sands. We sat by the dark orange setting sun and watched the vast blue water reflect the orange sun. We saw cute little crabs scuttling across the sand and eagles soaring around the green jungle hills. We felt the majesty of eagles- how they rule over the mountains, ocean, and world interest rates. The experience in the jungle and witnessing the sunset on the secluded beach was youthful and cleansing.
A young man-boy with a speedboat took us back to the mainland. The speedboat kept hitting the waves the banging my bottom on the hard seats. We had to stop the boat and let me sit my bum on a life vest to protect me from further frowning – hear that’s contagious. Then the boy took us to a small cliffside where his family of six was standing on the rocks fishing and picnicking. Then we all shared the boat back to the mainland. It was nice to see and hear a Malay family having a good time as the last inkling of light departed and left the sky a dark purple. I helped the plump mother get off the boat and the old grandpa helped me remember my Grandpa’s hat on the floor of the boat. Having shaken hands with many women in Malaysia and helped the older woman off the boat, I gathered that there wasn’t a cultural norm for men not to touch women – or they realized I wasn’t much of a man. Trinh and I walked out of the national park and into a Malay neighborhood and stopped along the road for a banana pancake. Then we took the bus back into the city and had Arabic Felafels and a Zataar before preparing for our early bus trip to KL the next morning. We had had another wonderful day.
Tet Day 3: Tuesday, Feb. 20th
We drank coffee at the Mugshot and then took a six-hour bus to KL. The bus was considered a cheap model in Malaysia, but it was considerably nicer than any bus in Vietnam. We traveled across the enormous Penang Bridge that runs over the Malacca Straits and past vast palm and rubber trees. Seeing the mainland of Malaysia was great, the country looks lush and organized. The highway was impeccable; it made us feel like we were in the USA – the bus seats were jumbo-sized to properly accommodate my venti Americano ass. It was unsettling to feel like we were in America, home, like the road could lead to my family – the way my thoughts often do. It was a relief to be on a highway and feel secure. We whirled between limestone cliffs, palm and rubber plantations, and large towns. Then we approached KL from highlands and saw the city from a road on a hillside hill above the city’s taller buildings. We literally descended into KL. KL is a greenest lushest city we’ve ever seen – You hear me Singapore!
We waded through the human waves at the central station and spun around the metro system a few times before we got to our hostel, which I had stayed at in 2013. Since being 24 the charm of being in a party hostel didn’t suit me anymore. We ventured into the city and were, at first, disappointed. It seemed grimy and, unlike other Southeast Asian cities, had idle men walking around and sitting on the corners. We made it to a historic-y district and wandered into a large park.
This park in KL isn’t like a wide, flat, open NYC park, but rather it’s a hill that can’t be domesticated and so remains covered with jungle trails. We got lost in the jungle and soon discovered we were the only people in the park as the Sun began to set. Inside the dense jungle, within earshot of the city’s traffic, we couldn’t see the sunset, we relied on the mosques’ ad’han singing that envelopes the city with melodious echoes to tell us the Sun has gone down. We walked briskly through the crumbling steps and wooden plank trails until we came to a cement road and followed it to the exit. High fives for escaping before it was completely dark.
Then we walked to the iconic Petronas Towers and drank smoothies and walked in until another park designed for jugging. We were totally impressed with the parks in KL. We realized we had come to Malaysia just to take walks, because we can’t walk in Saigon. We went home on the train and stopped to look at a mosque that was situated at the confluence of two rivers and then walked home and went to bed.
Tet Day 4: Wednesday, Feb. 21st
The next morning at 7AM, we humped back to the Central Bus station on the metro and slept for an hour in the bus to the airport. KL has two huge airports, and I’m quite familiar with this airport because of long layovers in-between trips to Sri Lanka and Australia. We sent the rest of our *Ringgit on airplane food and arrived back in HCMC. We rested for a bit and watched a documentary about eagles. Then we went out for craft beers at Heart of Darkness with Trinh’s friends Thao, Hien, and Pontus and had a great time catching up with friends. I had been apprehensive about coming back to the stress factors lingering in Saigon, but meeting up and being welcomed was a blessing.