Monthly Archives: January 2013

Image

Two months on the road…

20130130-172921.jpg

Two months ago, I cried when my Dad dropped us off at Newark International Airport. I felt it all– sadness not seeing my family for months, missing out on friends and so many friends’ growing families, excitement about the unknown, the freedom of a one-way ticket, and most forcibly– knowing that it was too late to turn back.

I focused on excitement and then settled into happy with a glass of champagne in First Class. Thirty hours, three champagnes, 4 movies and one ambien later and we found ourselves sitting in a gorgeous room booked on points at the Sheraton Singapore thinking to ourselves, “this is as good as it’s going to get”.

And in some ways it was. Beautiful, familiar surroundings. Signs everywhere in a language we speak. Navigable public transit. The new-ness of how fun this was going to be! Marveling at the distance how far away home felt.

A lot has changed in two months. We are having a blast, but we have a different perspective these days. We aren’t on vacation anymore, this is our life.

We are doing some things right: spending longer amounts of time places to settle in, not rushing to see too much at once, building in time to stay in touch with both current events and friends and family.

We are also doing some things wrong. We are sleeping like teenagers. We don’t have a good daily routine. We are being indulgent like vacation in terms of food, lazing about, and money in a way that weighs on you. You know that feeling at the of vacation on when you are a tiny bit happy to going home and getting back to normal? We’ve blown past that but with no end in sight and no good plans to fix it. And with no one else here, no boss, no dog, no friend waiting for us to do something by a certain time, we’ve become a bit lazy in our days and in our standards for treating each other human beings.

We have fought about: walking this way, walking that way, eat now, eat later, stay here, stay there, why did you cross the road without me, why did you say that, why won’t you listen to me, why did you sit in the back of the bus and not let me, being cranky, having low blood sugar, and making that joke. That’s just in the past 24 hours.

We have, however, laughed about: a inadvertently saucy shop name, a group of old white people gathered for a Thai lesson, a cute dog, being perplexed by an American waitress at a cowboy themed bar, and elephants. We laugh every time key quotes come up in conversation from our travels. We roll our eyes when we see dorky Western people wearing socks and sandals. We pet dogs (but Mom– only ones that look Rabies-free).

Some days you laugh more and fight less. Some days it’s the other way around. 50% of the time fights are due to blood sugar. The other 50% are due to us being different people with different personalities who have no personal space.

But we are in this together and wouldn’t have this trip go any other way. We have released ourselves from what we “SHOULD” be doing and since then have felt freer and lighter. We have some fun announcements about our route– we are making some big changes that I think will make us happier people– and probably more useful people too.

Suffice to say that Asia has been…. Asian… And the world is too big for us to not see more places.

This trip is ours — we have been repeating that over and over again. We are not going to end up gluing patches to our bags, wearing low-crotched “ethnic” pants jockeying with with other travelers about what is “hard”, authentic, and unseen. We are style-conscious, food-obsessed city people who stare endlessly at public transportation maps. Rattling around a bus in Lao is not really on my list of fun. Why should we do it if it’s not? We have money saved, tons of frequent flyer miles, hotel points and the internets.

Tomorrow we move into an apartment here in Chiang Mai for a weekend for vacation– and by vacation we mean being normal people. Getting up at a decent hour. Exercising. Making our own coffee. Cooking breakfast. Watching TV from not a bed. Long term travel can warp your sense of reality and we both are really looking forward to a small dose of it.

Bangkok, Buddha, beaches and buckets

After 20 hours on a train, we promptly drained our brains of all things Malaysian, much like getting water out of your ears after a swim, and we staggered out into the world from our train and Bangkok greeted us with a smoggy, humid embrace.

oooh! splatter paint!

After a stupid taxi ride (we had yet to learn numbers and universal life lesson: cabbies who hang around at train stations are all sort of jerks) we found our guesthouse– Silom Art Hostel. We stayed here 2 nights and then 7 nights more. It was great! Hot showers! Great location! Near public transit! Near good food! Free and fast wifi! Cute artsy decor! Adorable gay boy front desk staff!

The first day we arrived, walked around our neighborhood and slept. I should

also mention we ate about 16 servings of fruit. Fruit is everywhere here, cut up and put in a bag with salt, sugar, and chili powder if you like. We woke up the next day after binging on fruit and beer (BEER IS SO CHEAP! THERE IS NO JUDGEMENT! HALLELUJAH!) and went out in search of breakfast. Our hood had lots of street food but without being able to read Thai we had to stick our faces into other people’s breakfasts and the gesture that we would want the same. We sat down next to some guy eating a red soup and were like, “sweet! Curry things!” and gestured for two. The granny in an apron looked at us warily and then minutes later two bowls of pink soup arrived. Pink with a few drops of blood, tentacles sticking up and fishy fish balls. All before 11am. We powered through because it was good– it just wasn’t what we wanted at that time. After we googled what the hell we ate, we laughed and then we hit our fav BKk tourist attraction from our last visit here– Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. Buddha is cool. We made merit, took pictures and ate 3 pounds of papaya, which fortified us for the ferry to sky train journey home.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

There was a handmade poster of photos of HRC and BHO at Wat Pho. It made us proud to be Americans.

There was a handmade poster of photos of HRC and BHO at Wat Pho. It made us proud to be Americans.

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho

Wat Pho

The next day we were just too excited to do much because we were meeting up with our long distance gay besties (LDGBFFS)– Brock and Josh. We met them at the airport waving pom poms we bought at a Japanese dollar store and then we were off in a cab to catch up with some friends to Koh Samet, otherwise known as Donkey Island for Russians Who Take So Many Glamour Shots In Various States Of Undress.

Koh Samet is a blur of Issan food, sleeping in, lazy beach days swimming out to a pontoon and then having beers, sundowners, cocktails served in buckets and

Still not sure why I didn't make him my puppy stowaway.

Still not sure why I didn’t make him my puppy stowaway.

then a cheeseburger made by an amazingly beautiful “ladyboy” (gender in Thailand is both more fluid and more complicated than the US. I use quotes because that is the term used here not to indicate that she was any “less” of a lady) who I hope makes a killing and can retire early and lounge about in vintage caftans and cackle about how Western people act crazy.  After the glorious cheeseburger we’d go to bed at 3am and rise and repeat. One bar had puppies living under the stairs. Welcome to Asia. We’d go and then beat back all the Dutch kindergarteners to hold and snuggle them.  My liver is still not the same after you drink a piña colada from a enough buckets to make a fortress of a sand castle. Thankfully, there were 40,000 Russians there taking pictures that were all Courtney Stodden lookalikes as they frolicked for Facebook. Nothing like feeling judge-y to make a mild hangover disappear. I have never seen someone pretend to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel in the sand with that little irony.  I have also never seen such…uh…flashy? swimsuits on so many pronounced heterosexuals but that is perhaps another entry for a slimmer audience.  Also, as you might expect, unfortunate, saggy speedos on exactly who you don’t want to see them on.

When the beach and buckets made us weary of another day, we headed back to Bangkok where Dave and I succumbed to a vicious case of food poisoning or some weird 12-hour illness after dinner that left us looking pale even after 4 days at the beach,  but (upside?!) impossibly thin.  Suffice to say, a flat Sprite, lots of naps and a bag of chips later and we were out to dinner at an amazing restaurant God-knows-where in Thonburi eating some of the most magical food I have ever tried. Pad Thai without noodles was the real standout. I know it sounds like sacrilege but trust me — it was amazing. I slurped an oyster 10 hours after being violently ill. This is how persuasive this restaurant was.

Here is where we stopped being tourists and started acting like locals which meant we saw no sights but ate awesome food, drank more drinks, danced, shopped and shimmied through the rest of a week. Ok, Kat did those things. DK did not shimmy or dance but that is not his way really. It was fun to be with people who lived here. We also proudly avoided Khao San road entirely. Hooray for being old and for knowing people who know where cool things are!

When we bade our LDGBFFs goodbye after a very restorative BKK Bagel lunch and then sent them back to Tokyo we returned to tourist-ville for a while.  Wat Arun was spectacular and it was nice to not drink beer and be active human beings.

View from the top of Wat Arun. Gotta love Asia for its mix of skyscrapers and temples

View from the top of Wat Arun. Gotta love Asia for its mix of skyscrapers and temples

This is the vew from the first level looking up -- steep temple stairs!

This is the view from the first level looking up — steep temple stairs!

Wat Arun detail work

Wat Arun detail work

We also, oddly, ate a TON of soup. We have been soup fiends. Why I don’t know, maybe to empathize with friends and family in the US and UK getting some snow. We visited Hat Man Soup shophouse TWICE it was that good. We ate Khao Soi with some of our Samet friends (ooh- and

HAT MAN SOUP! Pork broth, pork, yellow noodles, won tons and morning glory.

HAT MAN SOUP! Pork broth, pork, yellow noodles, won tons and morning glory.

DELICIOUS mango sticky rice) and found a delicious cart that makes soup by our new guesthouse and were able to order in Thai. Well, I pronounced things as best I could but I’m sure what I asked for was “shark purple Cousin this with across, please” but the vendor kindly inferred “Pork noodle soup with yellow noodles and wontons please” out of pity and nodded.

I now write this from Bangkok again while we enjoy the city for what feels like five minutes before yet another overnight train to Chiang Mai where I hope to befriend a humanely treated elephant, rent an apartment for a few weeks,  and do some yoga. Traveling is great but there comes a time where you really want a few small comforts of home. Furniture to sit on that is not a bed. Not having to leave the house for breakfast. A bathroom that has a separate shower –dare I dream– instead of the Asian all-in-one wet bathroom? Of these things, something tells me the elephant is the only thing I may be able to count on.

Penang — Malaysia doesn’t exist anymore. We ate it all.

A lot of you have noticed that this blog is heavily food focused. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, duh, EATING DELICIOUS FOOD IS AWESOME. Secondly, when you are traveling there often isn’t a lot to DO other than eat. Meals become the focus of your day when you don’t have access to a fridge or a kitchen and if you don’t eat NOW you might not GET to eat.

We took an uneventful five hour bus ride from the Cameron Highlands north to Penang. Penang is an island just off the north west cost of Malaysia. It was occupied for many years by the English and as such many street and location names are in English (though they didn’t leave much of a culinary legacy — go figure). We got off the bus and walked to the ferry terminal to take the ferry to Penang.  20 minutes later we were in Penang’s capital Georgetown. We fought with several cab drivers and then decided to walk the 2 km to our guesthouse. With our packs. In 95 degree heat. Lesson learned — next time, suck it up and pay the $4 even if it IS outrageous.

I'm a total geek about mass transit and I was really excited to take this ferry. As you can see from this photo, my expectations may have been a bit high

I’m a total geek about mass transit and I was really excited to take this ferry. As you can see from this photo, my expectations may have been a bit high

Penang is known as Malaysia’s food capital, so we were pretty excited to be here. True to form, there were food stalls out on a lot of streets, which from what we found was somewhat uncommon in Malaysia. Mostly Chinese options, but definitely some Indian and Malay in there as well. We had some pretty great dim sum at a place down the street from our hostel. It was crowded so they sat us at a table with a local cab driver who was not entirely thrilled to be sharing his meal with us. He warmed to us….eventually. The dim sum ladies were totally giving him crap. I can’t speak Bahasa Malaysian but I’m 99% sure it was something like “Oh, you’re besties with the white people now? How are you enjoying dinner with your new BFF’s?” He finished his tea and cigarette and politely excused himself.

The one dish we HAD to have while in Penang was Penang Laksa, also known as Laksa Asam. You’ve heard us freak out over laksa before — well, this laksa is a totally different beast from what we’ve had before. The laksa we are used to is a fishy, spicy broth which is sweet with coconut milk. Asam Laksa is tart and sour, made with tamarind paste. We were looking for one place in particular to get it and were having some trouble finding it. Eventually we got frustrated and just gave up. “UGH, let’s just go to this place right here,” I said. Turns out, the place we plunked down in frustration WAS THE PLACE WE WERE LOOKING FOR. Sometimes you just get lucky, I guess. Look, this laksa was great….but the laksa we had in Singapore, for me, was a transcendental experience that will never be topped. I’m a junkie constantly chasing that first high.

I know, I know...another GD picture of a bowl of soup. But LOOK AT IT. DON'T YOU WANT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH HOLE?

I know, I know…another GD picture of a bowl of soup. But LOOK AT IT. DON’T YOU WANT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH HOLE?

There’s a bunch of stuff to do on the island of Penang but we largely stayed put in Georgetown which, honestly, was a bit more backpacker-y than I was expecting. It’s a very popular spot because it’s close to the Thai border and it’s easily accessible from Bangkok by train. For those needing to renew their Thai visas, Penang is a quick weekend trip. We also had visa business to attend to Penang. As Americans, if you cross into Thailand by land, you only get 15 days in the country (30 days by air). You can pay and apply for a 60 day Thai “tourist visa,” which is what we did. This really is basically just a money making scheme for Thailand.  You CAN go to the consulate yourself and fill out all the forms and wait in line and then go BACK the next day and pick it up. OR, for a few extra dollars you can pay a “service” to do this for you. We opted for the service. They handed us a form that asked for all kinds of information and they said “just sign it. Don’t fill anything out. Give us the form, $50 each, your passport and two photos.”  I checked with the guy TWICE because, uh, WHAT? DON’T fill out the form? He assured me that everything would be ok. Well, 2 days later, we had our passports back in hand with our visas complete. Something tells me, Thailand doesn’t care much about Americans coming and going as long as they pay.

While waiting for our visas, we indulged  in one of the few ridiculous and expensive tourist things we’ve permitted ourselves to do on this trip so far. We took a funicular up to the top of Penang Hill — the highest peak on the island. It was quite nice up there — cooler temperatures, lots of families zipping around in golf carts. The funicular cost $30. For us. For Malaysians it cost about $3. I know that we’re paying “white person price” almost everywhere we go, and whether that enrages you or you’re ok with it, it is the reality of things. This is the first time that I encountered institutionalized up-front and publicly posted white person price. It was a bit of a shock. Especially when it was SUCH a discrepancy. We rode the public bus to the base of the hill and there were some french backpackers behind us. When they got to the ticket booth they blanched at the cost and after some scrounging for change in their pockets, turned around and went back to the bus.

Normally I wouldn’t pay such an outrageous amount of money for something like this but there’s something you all need to know about Kat. This woman LOVES a funicular. Like, is insane bonkers CRAZY for them. We went on a funicular in Istanbul two years ago and she’s STILL talking about it. No sir. If there’s a funicular to be had, WE ARE RIDING THAT SUMBITCH. In fact, I have to say, as far as funiculars go, this was a pretty good one. A long ride, very steep. Good times.

THIS. THIS is how excited this insane person is to ride this funicular.

THIS. THIS is how excited this insane person is to ride this funicular.

Penang Hill was a strategic vantage point for the British and there’s a bit of England up there (an old post box, for example). There are some pricey resorts and even a few very ritzy private residences, which we walked past. Again. there’s not a ton to DO, perse, but it’s a nice afternoon of waking around. Back in Georgetown, we spent most of the time walking around, visiting some increeedibly dull historical sites (an old English fort with, literally, NOTHING in it), and, of course eating. We also did a bit of drinking but, remember, this is Malaysia, so a beer will cost you a minimum of $6. We spent most nights at the Red Garden food center, which is very similar to a Singaporean style hawker center. Once I ordered a beer there and the Muslim server brought it over to me.  He must not have been familiar with this brand in particular because he picked it up to inspect it. Seeing it was about 6.5% alcohol he said to me, “Oh, I see this one is very strong” and walked away with a judgmental air. It was at that moment that my desire to get to booze-filled non-judgy Thailand reached its peak.

Good news! Thailand times were nigh! After 5 days in Penang, we boarded the overnight train to Bangkok. The ride was about 20 hours and, I have to say, it was not a terrible experience. People come aboard the train every few stops selling fruit or snacks. There’s ALLEGEDLY a dining car though, honest to god, I couldn’t find it. Dinner and breakfast were served on the train, though honestly it was pretty awful. Next train ride we’re gonna pack our own provisions.

Our train berth. The two seats we're in slide together to form one bed and there's a compartment above that folds down to become a second bed. A nice man comes around and sets up your bed with clean sheets and a pillow. Kat called top bunk. (That's a lie, top bunk is smaller so I made her sleep in it)

Our train berth. The two seats we’re in slide together to form one bed and there’s a compartment above that folds down to become a second bed. A nice man comes around and sets up your bed with clean sheets and a pillow. Kat called top bunk. (That’s a lie, top bunk is smaller so I made her sleep in it)

We had some beers on the train, chatted with the people next to us (a welsh woman and her boyfriend — from the Bronx, but had an English accent?), ate some food and then eventually popped an Ambien and passed out only to awake the next morning in Bangkok.

And now, for no reason at all, a random sign we saw in Penang. Anyone looking for a foosball table possibly made from unicorn? I know a guy.

The Cameron Highlands: (otherwise known as) where we wore our jackets that one time

We had hmmmed and hawed about going to the Cameron Highlands. Dave was skeptical — why would we go somewhere that was outdoorsy? We are not trekkers. We do not know the names of plants. We like tea OK and all but are by no means fanatics. It was a 5 hour bus ride, when we could be onward to Penang by that time. I held firm. My friend Lauren suggested it and I was totally into the idea of being somewhere different. Much like our debates about paying more for a private bathroom, I won. We were going. We booked at Gerard’s Place — a small guesthouse away from the party backpacker scene (btw: party backpacker scene in Tanah Rata population: 3) researched bus options and off we were.

The bus trip was quiet and comfortable until just a tiny bit past Ipoh (one of my favorite town names ever. Pronounced “eeeeee-po” it sounds like some sort of eye infection or eye infection cream) we started winding up the mountain. And when I say “winding up the mountain” I mean the bus driver turned off the A/C and we got dizzy circling higher and higher up the mountain with a blare of the horn around each deep curve with a few near misses on a head-on collision with a tiny errant Hyundai. I eventually closed my eyes until we stopped at the bus terminal.

O We took a very quick taxi ride to our guesthouse and immediately fell in love with the owner, Jay, and her awesome husky dog, Amy. Jay, for my family reading this was the Malay Indian clone of my cousin Sharon. If you squinted, all you saw was a wash of dark hair, high cheekbones and a quick smile. She was effervescent, welcoming and had an adorable family and that familiarity was a huge part of why we loved staying at Gerard’s so much. We relaxed, I read some German Grazias and we deeply sighed a relaxed sigh and the city seemed incredibly far away.

OThe next day we did a day tour run by Cameron Secrets which was also owned by our guesthouse. We chose the Mossy Forest Tour which highlighted a bunch of the highlights for us: Strawberry farm, forest, scenic views and some activity (DK was less interested in activity– part of this trip is coming back enviably tan and skinny. Activity + sweat = skinny). It was super fun thanks to our amazing guide Saathiye. He was incredibly knowledgeable about plants: he handed me a leaf and said “take a bite”. It was fresh cinnamon. After a story about a walk through a forest in Indonesia and being covered with 100 leeches — we found out he was a botanist by day and moonlighting as a tour guide on his breaks in between expeditions. He had the nervous energy of a guy who can’t sit still very long and was quick with a joke and and had my favorite Malaysian quality: a great sense of humor about Malaysia being weird.

We were not as prepOared as some others with hiking boots on our tour. We were fine on the strawberry farm, scenic lookouts, the quiet tea plantation/factory and highest tower on the mountains. We were ill-prepared for hiking through ankle-deep cold, dense mud. Luckily, a super hip and fun Danish family were also ill-prepared so we bonded immediately. When you fall ass-first into mud in your Acne jeans, you need to be able to laugh about it with someone in mud up to her ankles. You cannot turn to the stern Swiss girl in hiking boots and zip-off REI pants for support. Thankfully Dave and I had been in Asia long enough to know that if a OWesterner does something stupid, no one will say anything to you. They will just talk about you in a language you are too stupid to learn about how fat and dumb you are. Which is what four impeccably dressed Malaysian ladies did to me as I washed my feet and muddy, muddy shoes off in the ladies room of a tea plantation tasting room. Then, three Dutch ladies did the same thing so sue me. The experience was worth the dirt, though, and I felt very nature-girl-y for the next few hours until I saw a huge cicada outside and had to flee to the safety of the indoors where nature doesn’t exist quite like that.

O

OOur absolute favorite thing about the Highlands though, was the temperature. One full day was enough to see the sights and mostly we just relaxed and reveled in the delightfully dreary weather. We wore our fleeces and sometimes, our rain coats. It was misty and green and we drank tons of tea to ward of the chill of sleeping with the windows open. Poor us, you see, it was 78 degrees F during the day and probably 68 at night. We were used to sweating so hard that you could play “tears or sweat” with my face behind my sunglasses (note: often sweat, occasionally tears). We reveled in not sweating. We took hot showers. We drank hot beverages. We could not WAIT to brag about being cold to our friends and family back home. We were so smug about it that I feel the need to confide in you that I am writing this outside by the pool at our hotel in Kanchanaburi, Thailand with sweat running down my face, gathering behind my knees and hoping to make some merit to the Buddha for offsetting my wrongs earlier.

O

I am sorry, Buddha, for bragging about the “cold”. I am also sorry, Buddha, for bringing up the fact that every time we talk about loving our brief time in the Highlands I brattily remind DK it was my idea. This is not true. It was Lauren’s.

O

 

 

 

Melaka — Malaysia’s Most Popular Field Trip Destination

One of the most interesting ways to learn about a foreign culture is to see where they go on vacation within their own country. This is particularly true of places of cultural significance. Everyone loves a natural wonder, but it won’t tell you as much about a group of people as a site of historical significance.

Kat and I were happy to get out of Kuala Lumpur for a few days and took a 2 hour bus ride to the south west coastal city of Melaka, one of Malaysia’s top tourist draws. Melaka is a city with an interesting and long history being occupied at one point or another over the past 600 years by Portuguese, Dutch, English (the Dutch again), and Japanese during WWII. Finally then Malaysians got to control their own city.

All this European colonial history makes Melaka a hugely popular tourist attraction for Malaysians and, for reasons that escape explanation, Chinese on package tours ALL of whom were staying in our hotel. (Chinese tourists were top on our list of most awful human beings ever — until we encountered Russian package tourists in Thailand – but more on that for a later post).

The town is quite small and very walkable. It’s quaint and (somewhat) relaxed with a lazy river floating through it. Though it’s right on the coast, you can’t really see the water unless you’re up high on a hill. There are a number of remnants from the colonial era (primarily Dutch) that you can explore — the dutch church,  the dutch government offices, ruins of the Portuguese fort. Kat’s not really a history nerd like me, so I explored these sites without her. To be honest, it was all quite dull — a LOT of panel reading and not a whole lot to see. To spice things up, the town has built a bunch of replica nonsense for tourist bait. You can explore a recreation of a 16th century Portuguese galleon (which I did — again, not worth my 6 ringit). There’s also right on the river a recreation of a dutch waterwheel and a dutch windmill and my GOD did the Malays and Chinese clamor for photos in front of those. I was perplexed by this but Kat pointed out that this is the closest thing to “Europe” that a lot of these people have seen. I guess it’s a good point. If there were a giant Chinese dragon or something in downtown Annapolis, Maryland I might have my photo taken with that too.

One of Melaka's many, many pointless tourist attractions -- you can spend $10 and go see everything you've already seen but from HIGHER UP. WOW.

One of Melaka’s many, many pointless tourist attractions — you can spend $10 and go see everything you’ve already seen but from HIGHER UP. WOW.

A popular thing is to rent a bicycle powered trishaw covered in flashing lights and trinkets and to be driven around the city with music BLARING from speakers in the back.  (“Gangnum Style” typically, as if you even needed to ask). It does add a certain flare to the place, especially at night as these insane pop and neon-light powered rockets zip around. We tried many MANY times to get a good photo, but it just didn’t work out. Use your imaginations.

Like any good tourist city, Melaka has some foods that it is known for, including its own Pat’s/Geno’s style “which place makes the best thing” rivarly. Of course, this is Asia and not Philly so the fight isn’t over cheesesteaks, but rather over chicken rice balls. Loyal readers will remember chicken rice that we ate in Singapore. This is the same thing except the rice is served in tiny sticky golf ball sized pieces and this is apparently ONLY done in Melaka. Again, who can explain these things? There are two places that are both “famous” for their chicken rice balls. We only went to one because both had incredibly long lines.

While waiting in line we began chatting with a kind Canadian woman named Joyce. We invited her to join us for lunch and she was our stand-in mom for a few hours. She picked up the bill at the end. Joyce, wherever you are, you are the bomb dot com.

While waiting in line we began chatting with a kind Canadian woman named Joyce. We invited her to join us for lunch and she was our stand-in mom for a few hours. She picked up the bill at the end. Joyce, wherever you are, you are the bomb dot com.

It was good. Worth waiting an hour in line good? No, it never is REALLY now is it? But it was still fun and I’m glad we did it.

We were in Melaka for Christmas, and I’ll be honest, it was a low moment on the trip for both of us. It just didn’t feel right being so far away from friends and family and familiar foods. It’s not Christmas when it’s 95 degrees out and you’re eating chili paste and fish sauce. So for “Christmas dinner” we decided to treat ourselves to something special — THE most famous restaurant in all of Melaka (and perhaps one of the most famous in all of Malaysia) — Capitol Satay.

What this is, basically, is a dirty hole in the wall with a bunch of tables with big holes in the center. In the whole is a giant vat that is filled with delicious spicy, peaunty satay sauce. You go to a wall cooler in the corner and pick out skewers  of anything and everything ranging from vegetables, to pig ears, to offal to prawns to lord knows what else (STILL not entirely sure about some of what I ate). You bring those skewers back to the table (they cost about 30 cents each), the staff turns on the propane tank located between your legs and the satay sauce begins to bubble and boil and you cook your own skewers in the sauce right there in the middle of the table.

You can have your turkey, goose, or feast of seven fishes for Christmas dinner -- I've got squid and gelatinous pig blood on a stick

You can have your turkey, goose, or feast of seven fishes for Christmas dinner — I’ve got squid and gelatinous pig blood on a stick

This is great fun for a huge group especially. It was also INSANELY messy. Also, we had to wait over 3 hours to get in. Again — not sure it was worth all THAT but it was terrific fun and I know that it’s a Christmas dinner that we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

We were in Melaka for 4 days and honestly it was a day or two too long, but it’s still worth a visit. By the last day we ran out of stuff to do and just decided to be lazy and go see a movie (Life of Pi in 3D was pretty good!). We were excited to get out of our dingy hotel filled with screaming Chinese and a sewage-y smelling bathroom. It was back to KL for us for an extended period of time (which you’ve already read about) and after that we departed for the cool climes of the Cameron Highlands, full of forest trekking and tea plantations. More on that to follow in our next post.

I leave you with this (admittedly awful) picture so you can get some sense of what Melaka was like. Please to enjoy:

That blurry set of blue lights next to my head is the back of a trishaw. No doubt it's blasting "HEEEEEYYYYY SEXY LAAAAADAAY..."

That blurry set of blue lights next to my head is the back of a trishaw. No doubt it’s blasting “HEEEEEYYYYY SEXY LAAAAADAAY…”

DTF for Din Tai Fung

Image

DYING TO FEAST, that is! It’s true. DK and I are super slutty for Din Tai Fung. But before you bemoan our luck in eating something so delicious and you being not near such a magical place — we aren’t such special unicorns feasting in a dumpling castle in Fattyland. There are dozens of Din Tai Fungs in the world so get yourself to a place where there is one (3 in the US!) and go eat here already. Many friends let us know that duh, muffins, it’s famous and stuff so get over yourselves already. The internet exploded about Din Tai Fung in like 2008, so we’re just super late to the dumpling party but we just don’t care. It was so super good. We were in a mall in Kuala Lumpur. You could easily be in a shopping center in LA, or a department store in Kyoto. After ingesting all this sweet gluten (carbs), delicate mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and ginger (sodium bloat) and delicious sweets (fried) the logical conclusion is to go try on tiny clothes. LA and Asia are the two places you might imagine make a girl feel self-conscious about herself so why not just blame the shumai for why the 3XXLFATTYPANTS don’t fit but one of your thighs?

You’ll note two things about our meal here.

1.) THERE IS PORK. The sweet baby Jesus gave us pork and we ate pork in one of the best combinations possible: in an unholy union with shrimp. Not Halal AND Treif? This combination thumbs its nose at not one but two major religions which means I’ll probably suffer for this later and probably in another life too but I. DON’T. CARE.

2.) THERE WERE NO VEGETABLES. Surely, normal people go here and order some lovely spinach concoction or perhaps a sauteed leafy green but not us. No way. This may also be why there were no pictures of us taken the day after — we were a bit puffy.

Our story beings, just 20 minutes before the initial puff-onset. We headed to the Pavilion — the largest mall in KL by monorail. We figured we’d have to wait a bit and we did.

Image

We actually only waited like 15 minutes or so. They are smart and hand you your menu/receipt with pictures of everything for us Western dumb dumbs before you sit down so you can make your choices while you give happy diners the evil eye as you stare them down to get their asses out of those seats. We chose an embarrassingly large array of items. This is probably why it is someone’s job to be the “western wrangler” who will come over in perfect cheery English and look over your order and raise their eyebrows at the staggering amount of food you’ve selected. Upon the look of shock on her face, I meekly asked if we had ordered too much to which she giggled… and then said YES and encouraged us to knock off 2 -3 things on our list. We did and then it was time to take our seats, my cheeks burning with shame already having been judged by a grown woman who probably weighed less than 100lbs and DK smiling brightly (like a little prince!) who was just told that he was incorrigible.

Since we had pre-ordered, we waited just a few minutes for the food to arrive. We were probably in and out in about 28 minutes which was something else to be embarrassed about but perhaps for another blog entry.

Up first, dan dan noodles. I don’t think I’d ever had these before and will definitely seek them out again. The noodles were perfectly chewy with a bit of bite and the sauce was rich, peanuty and spicy.

Image

Next was won ton soup. Remember how I already had wonton soup that ruined wonton soup for me forever? JK! This wonton soup ruined the other wonton soup which ruined wonton soup. Pork and shrimp wontons which were silky on the outside and had good heft inside. Heaven.

Image

Then the dumplings came out. You can watch the dumplings being made in the font by young chefs who are meticulously folding them as neatly as can be all the while covered head to toe like they were working in a factory. It was very serious business. I did see them move stacks of bamboo steamers so a little girl could watch them and that made my ovaries twinge. Just a little! if babies like dumplings than maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Slippery slope I suppose. ANYWAY I DIGRESS SINCE I AM PINING AWAY FOR VODKA…..

We had delicious, beautiful pork and shrimp dumplings which were filled inside with a tiny bit of broth. When we bit into these we sort of perked up a bit about what a monumental meal this was. Before everything was just super delicious. Things really took a step up here.

Image

Next we tried the house specialty, xiaolongbao. We had pork, naturally. These were amazing. Like, nearly molecular gastronomy. When you put one in your moth, the broth which was perfectly warm but not hot flooded your mouth and then you bit into the delicious porky insides and then we’d lean back into our chairs and have very serious and inappropriate conversations with our eyes as we chewed this amazing thing. It was incredible. By this point we were discussing the meal as pivotal! Life-changing! INTENSE!

Image

By now we were pretty stuffed and we probs shouldn’t have ordered these but I think we were just overcome with the pork shakes that we needed more. These were delicious and perfect but not as special as the other things we got.

Image

By now we were ready to go lay down and pop a Tums but oops– we had ordered dessert. On a whim we got mini sesame balls because when isn’t sesame just the right thing? These were perhaps the most incredible thing we ate. I was immediately enamored with the xiaolongbao but these are what I wish I could taste again. Think about black sesame seeds inside a delicious soft bao-wrapping. Now think about an oreo. These tasted like high-class oreos and i wish to eat these again. Very soon. For a split-second I was irrationally mad at Dave that we’d have to share the 3rd one. I cut it down the middle with a bit of spite but promptly swallowed it with the final bit of sesame bun.

Image

Twenty-something minutes later we were back out into the mall avoiding people dive bombing us (seriously, Asia, why with the walking like kamikaze pilots? We’re right here — two big Western people walking in a straight line– you can’t miss us. Why aim directly for us? UGH.)

Worth it to be elbowed by a 90-lb mom of 3 on her way to Din Tai Fun herself to have eaten there. I get it sister — you’re jonesing for a fix. This meal, by the way, was the most expensive one we’ve eaten to date. Grand total? $28USD.

Kuala Lumpur — Singapore’s gritty, grimy cousin

After several weeks of cold salt water showers in Indonesia we were VERY excited to be coming to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was expecting KL to be a lot like Singapore except messier, dirtier and generally more “Southeast Asian.” For the most part I was right. And I loved it. We were there for three days and then went to Melaka for a 4 days (another post on this to come later). We soon realized that we should probably just stay put for a while after that. It was the holiday season and finding guesthouse reservations and bus tickets was getting more and more difficult. We decided to go back to KL for about a week and just camp out until after the new year. And why not? The food is tasty and the internet is fast. So we had a good amount of time in the city but I feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface.

A lot of people dislike KL. They say it’s a soulless city with horrible traffic, terrible sidewalks, and little of note to see other than shopping malls. That’s all kind of true, but still there’s some magic to this place. It’s extremely multicultural with Indians, Chinese and Malays all living not exactly together but at least next to each other in relative harmony. The city is barely more than 150 years old, which for Asia makes it barely a zygote. “Kuala Lumpur” is Malaysian for “muddy confluence,” given that name by the tin miners who hacked the area out of the jungle where two small rivers merge.

 

One half of the muddy confluence

One half of the muddy confluence

 

The food is fantastic and while there aren’t giant hawker centers like in Singapore it’s still incredibly easy to find delicious food for not a lot of money. We did splurge (and by ‘splurge’ I mean, spent more than $12 total on a meal) by going to Din Tai Fung Dim Sum (in a posh mall, naturally). That meal was so amazing that we’re going to dedicate a separate blog post to it. It will live on in our memories forever.

Jalan Alor, KL's "Eat Street." Dozens of restaurants that all bleed into one another with outdoor seating. Fantastically fun.

Jalan Alor, KL’s “Eat Street.” Dozens of restaurants that all bleed into one another with outdoor seating. Fantastically fun.

Malaysia is a Muslim country and you definitely notice that as most, if not almost all, Malay women wear headscarves, but aside from that (and alcohol being RIDICULOUSLY expensive) you don’t really notice it. I was expecting the call to prayer to be loud and omnipresent in KL, but we really only heard it a few times. I was disappointed to learn that Israeli passport holders are not permitted entry into Malaysia without special permission. I have an Israeli stamp in my passport but was still greeted with a warm smile and a “Welcome to Malaysia!” by the immigration officer at the airport.

We decided to visit the National Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in SE Asia. It was not what we were expecting. We thought it would be old and historic looking, but instead we came upon a huge open, airy and very modern structure. I always love visiting mosques. They’re always so breezy and cool (plus I love taking my shoes off in big cities!) The National Mosque in KL was no exception.

They asked Kat "Are you Muslim?!" when she produced her own headscarf. Of COURSE she had her own scarf -- KAT OBEYS THE RULES.

They asked Kat “Are you Muslim?!” when she produced her own headscarf. Of COURSE she had her own scarf — KAT OBEYS THE RULES.

While we were there, a young Malay woman can running up to Kat with her camera in her hand. Kat went to take the camera from her, thinking she wanted us to take a photo of her. She pulled her hand back and motioned for us to stand next to her elderly parents. She shoved us all together and took a photo of us with her parents in the mosque. I’d heard of this sort of thing happening to westerners in India, but I was caught off guard by it in KL, a city with no shortage of white folks around. Whatever, we were happy to do it. We felt like Malaysian celebrities for a few minutes.

I was dressed inappropriately (wearing shorts). For penance, they made me wear this ridiculous and UNBELIEVABLY HOT robe. Whatever. I'm a rebel.

I was dressed inappropriately (wearing shorts). For penance, they made me wear this ridiculous and UNBELIEVABLY HOT robe. Whatever. I’m a rebel.

We spent New Year’s Eve downtown. We found a bar with a decent happy hour (Two for one pints for 2 hours! Cheapest pint — $11) then had dinner on Jalan Alor. We walked around Bukit Bingtang, one of the most popular areas in town. It was mobbed with people (even more than usual) with everyone blowing horns and spraying each other with shaving cream. It was tremendous fun but we wanted to beat the rush home, so we got on the monorail at 11 pm to get to our mall before midnight.

Oh, did I not mention that we were staying INSIDE OF A MALL?  We waited a bit too long to book accommodations for KL so we ended up staying at a  new hotel a bit outside the city, inside of a home goods mall. When I say new, I mean that they really hadn’t finished constructing it yet. It was a lovely 4 star hotel — but one wall in our room wasn’t painted yet. There was a mark on the wall for where the toilet paper holder will one day go. There were paint tarps and tools on the balcony. It was still quite nice though and we got a bargain price on it (Four star hotel for under $50? I’ll take it). Living inside a mall is, in an ironic way, a quintessential KL experience.

There was an overpass over a 10 lane highway leading into the mall where we and a bunch of locals from the public housing towers (I’m really not selling this place well, am I?) watched the fireworks. It was pretty cool as we had a view of the whole city, including the iconic Petronas Towers, and could see several different fireworks displays.  A low key but unforgettable New Year’s. After midnight, some people in one of the apartment blocks began throwing M-80’s onto the highway below. And THAT right there, is why KL and Singapore are very, very different places.

One thing I really don’t like about KL is just how damn difficult it is to get anywhere. The traffic is unbelievable (in Malaysia, having a car is a symbol of success, so there are surprisingly few people that drive motorbikes, unlike other southeast Asian cities) so we didn’t even bother with buses or cabs. The city has several different mass transit systems: a light rail (with two lines, built by separate companies, so they don’t really play nice with each other) a monorail, a commuter rail and a high speed airport train.

KL's mass transit -- complete with passive aggressive signage

KL’s mass transit — only kind of getting you where you want to go and being a passive aggressive jerk to boot

 

 

You can buy a smartcard to tap in and out of some systems, but they don’t work on every line. Sidewalks are broken, full of holes and often non-existent. Trying to walk anywhere is never easy as you will always be blocked by a highway, a rail line or a river which has only a few points where pedestrians can cross. We never knew how long it would take to get anywhere. 1 mile of walking on the map could easily turn into 90 minutes as we had to figure out ways around multiple obstacles. Despite all the traffic, I get why all the locals want cars.

Of course, besides malls, eating and a brief break for mosque-ing, we did do SOME touristy stuff. We went to the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world about 15 years ago but since eclipsed by others. We went to the base of the towers (you’ll never guess what’s inside! A MALL!). Going up to the top is preposterously expensive and they also make it a pain to get the tickets. I have a strict travel policy of never paying money to go to the top of a tall thing, so we just looked at the towers from the ground and said “Yeah, that’s pretty tall, I guess” and moved on.

It's OK...but it's no Burj Khalifa

It’s OK…but it’s no Burj Khalifa

One tourist thing we did that actually turned out to be even cooler than advertised was going to the Batu Caves. This Hindu holy site is a series of caves in the side of a mountain that is reached by climbing nearly 300 steps. It’s easily accessible being only a 30 minute ride north of the city on the commuter rail. We went on New Year’s Eve day, which I think was great because it was relatively calm. On holy days and weekends, the site is supposedly mobbed with tourists.

Ohey. I'm a Hindu god. How's it going? Oh, also, you gotta climb these steps. Have fun with that, idiots.

Ohey. I’m a Hindu god. How’s it going? Oh, you wanna see the cool cave stuff? You gotta climb these steps right here. Have fun with that, idiots.

The climb was totally worth it though. First, it was hilarious to watch the Singaporean tourists in their high heels and short skirts try to climb the steps without falling and/or flashing everyone behind them. But also because the caves themselves were pretty damn cool.

Petronias Towers, marvel of modern architecture, ain't got NOTHIN on a mountain with a big ass hole in it.

Petronas Towers, marvel of modern architecture, ain’t got NOTHIN on a mountain with a big ass hole in it.

The one downside of the caves: Monkeys. They look cute, but these little bastards carry diseases, steal stuff right our of people’s hands and will bite you if you feed them (and then take the food you were offering anyway). If I can leave you with one piece of advice: STAY AWAY FROM MONKEYS.

You give me a cookie, I give you rabies. Fair trade.

You give me a cookie, I give you rabies. Fair trade.

Climbing all those steps was taxing and we needed a snack. Honestly, we don’t really need an excuse. We would’ve had a snack whether we’d climbed the damn steps or not. We rewarded ourselves by having one of Kat’s favorite Indian treats. Imagine funnel cake dipped into frighteningly sweet floral-tasting syrup. We’ve had it several times already. It’s my jam.

One of these days we should probably learn what this little bundle of awesomeness is called.

One of these days we should probably learn what this little bundle of awesomeness is called.

If you’ve read this far and are still hungry for more, click here to see more of our photos from KL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/banhmiandyou/sets/72157632403167818/