Local Attractions

(I should have written this around 2 months ago, but right now I’m considering it a success since I wrote it before 2014.)

In my last few months in Malaysia, I didn’t travel a lot outside of the country. But there were some interesting things to do in my state, so I explored those instead.

Cameron Highlands

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When I first got to Malaysia, I asked my students what I should see in Malaysia and everyone told me to go to the Cameron Highlands. They promised me that the Cameron Highlands had colder temperatures! And strawberries! And tea!

It’s not that they lied to me exactly. It was just that cold to my students was a few degrees cooler than burning hot. And the strawberries weren’t really comparable to going strawberry picking in fields in the US. If it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s just that my first trip to the Cameron Highlands was full of missteps and moldy chocolate. The tea plantations were beautiful though, and got better with every trip. I ended up going back to the Highlands two more times and enjoyed it more each time.

Deerland

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I’m not really sure how we ended up going to Deerland, but when a place promises you deer and sunbears, I guess the choice is made for you. Alas, there were no sunbears (and now I’ll never know what those are), but Deerland was actually a lot of fun. We didn’t expect to do much other than feed deer, but Deerland had a whole motley crew of animals to look at, hold and poop on you. Highlights included me getting to hold a hedgehog and seeing a Kancil, the mouse deer for which my Malaysian car was named.

Kuala Ganda

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On the same trip to Deerland, we went to Kuala Ganda, an elephant sanctuary in Malaysia. After signing up to bathe with the elephants, we watched a bizarre and slightly terrifying video of elephants being run out of the jungles in Malaysia. After the documentary and questioning my decision to bathe with these elephants, we saw the baby and adult elephants line up, do tricks and get fed. Luckily, the bathing part was just with the baby elephants and ended up being a lot of fun. Unluckily, but unsurprisingly, I smelled like an elephant after the fact.

Gold Mine

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One morning, I showed up at school and was told that I was going to the gold mine. Never one to turn down a field trip, and one to a gold mine no less, I hopped on the bus. After sitting through a lecture (about gold? mines? who knows, it was all in Malay), they passed around a gold bar worth $1 million USD. That’s the principal of my school holding the gold bar. He had a grand old time at the mine and it was a little difficult to tug that gold bar out of his hands.

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After the lecture and gold bar photoshoot, we drove by the… ? I’m not exactly sure what this is, but there was some digging going on and it was pretty. And that’s really all I require from impromptu field trips.

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Kuching

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Two weekends ago, I headed to the Malaysian side of Borneo to enjoy what will probably be my last vacation here. Yep, my grant is finishing up soon and I’m both excited and somewhat paralyzed by that (hooray for mac n’ cheese and coffee and a relatively bug free existence, boo to trying to find gainful employment).

My time in Kuching was relatively low key, but I got to do a few cool things when I was there. First, I saw some orangutans.

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Forgive me for the awful picture. It was rainy and I didn’t want to venture closer because the guide’s exact instructions were, “If it comes after you, run for your life.”

Fun fact: Orangutan is one of the few English words that comes from Bahasa Malaysia. Orang Utan means people of the forest. This is one of the few things I learned in my Bahasa Malaysia classes during orientation.

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The highlight of my trip was going to the Cat Museum. I highly recommend all of you travel to Borneo just to see it. We headed there on Saturday but unfortunately, it was closed for a public holiday. Undeterred, we woke up early the next morning so that we could go to the museum before our flights. I’m really glad we did because the Cat Museum was too good to miss. Some of the exhibits featured bags of cat food, inspirational posters from the 90s and Hallmark cards (only the ones with cats on them, of course). There were also mummified cats, pictures of cat tattoos and my favorite, multiple placards that used the line, “Only a tyrant could not like cats.” Malaysian museums might be my favorite things ever.

6 more weeks until I come home!

Penang

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Now that I have less than two months left in my Fulbright grant, I’ve been trying to visit more places in Malaysia. Last weekend, I went to Georgetown, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in the state of Penang. The first things I noticed as I stumbled along the streets at 4.30 in the morning after taking a night bus were the wire sculptures, like the one pictured above. They’re placed in various streets around Georgetown and mention fun facts. For example, my hostel on Love Lane is where all the businessmen kept their mistresses.

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On the first day, we took a tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. We had high tea at the mansion as well, because how else are you going to feel fancy?

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One of the reasons I wanted to go to Penang was because I heard it had great street art. There were some awesome pieces that did not disappoint. But I did have to look at a street art map to find them though, which makes me feel somewhat conflicted. I feel like street art might be better when you just stumble upon it, rather than making it an intended goal. That’s probably just me being ridiculous though.

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While taking a stroll on our last day, we stumbled upon a temple. Now, I’ve traveled to a few countries in South East Asia and I’ve seen a lot of temples. But I’ve never been in a temple covered with such intricate carvings. Scenes like this covered the whole facade of the building. Color me impressed.

All in all, I had a great trip to Penang, which was only marred by a frustrating bus experience on the way back. After being told the wrong platform (by two employees) we missed our bus and customer service, being the way it is, denied us a refund. All that to say, if you’re traveling in Malaysia, avoid Transnasional bus services.

Sydney

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Now that I’ve gotten the obligatory Opera House picture out of the way, I can write about the rest of my vacation in Sydney. I was really excited to go to Australia because it’s winter there right now, and while it doesn’t really compare to East Coast winters, I could still wear sweatshirts and jeans. Also, I missed being in an English speaking country. While that might seem like a bad way to choose a vacation destination, it ended up being a lot of fun.

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We stayed fairly close to Bondi Beach in a really nice neighborhood that made me miss America. It had western conveniences such as: vegetarian options! a health food store! well maintained sidewalks! Our first day there, my roommate and I walked into a corner store and stood there for half an hour exclaiming over tortillas, salsa and frozen dinners. I suspect the owner thought we were crazy.

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One of the highlights of the trip was going to Hillsong for church on Sunday morning. I haven’t been able to go to church a whole lot in Malaysia and I really miss it (to the point that whenever I do get to go to church, I get teary eyed, which makes me feel like a sentimental old person). It was even more special to go to a Hillsong service. Their music has been a huge part of my church experience, especially when I’m abroad. In Malaysia (and previously in Uganda), I never really connect with the sermons because they’re so culture specific. But for better or for worse, many churches around the world play Hillsong’s music, and every time I heard those familiar chords, I miss home a little less.

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On one of our days there, we wandered up to the Blue Mountains, a few hours outside of Sydney. We saw some beautiful sights, but it was there that I realized that the clothes that I packed for Malaysia did not really work for Australian mountain ranges. It was cold and terribly windy, but stopping into cute cafes and chocolatiers made up for it.

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The rest of my days in Australia were spent taking an awesome walking tour, going to museums and generally finding the free things the city had to offer (Australia is an expensive country to visit, especially when I’m getting paid in Ringgit).

Australia was also fun to be in because the people I met actually knew where I was from! I even ran into a fellow Delawarean in the airport. It was incredibly nice to be somewhere that reminded me so much of home. Lest I sound like I only appreciated Australia for being more like America than Malaysia is, it was also interesting to see the differences between Australia and the U.S. For example, climate change is not widely accepted by Australians and I got into a conversation with someone there that included the sentence, “If global warming exists, then why is it cold outside?” I also saw a hilarious political ad on T.V., which featured an ominous music and white words on a black background which read, “Some people want Australia to have privatized healthcare. JUST. LIKE. AMERICA.” Though, if I had the awesome benefits Australians get, I’d probably make fun of America as well.

Hari Raya

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Ramadan ended a little less than two weeks ago. To mark the end of it, Malaysia celebrated Hari Raya. Hari Raya is basically a holiday where you go visit everyone you know and eat a lot of food. Sounds delightful, right?

On the last day of Ramadan, my roommate and I headed over to her student’s house to learn how to prepare a few traditional dishes. The most common meal during Hari Raya is lomong and rendang. Lomong is rice cooked in bamboo shoots over the fire, and rendang is a curry. My job was to clean banana leaves and roll them up in the bamboo shoots (pictured above). After that was done, we spooned rice into the bamboo shoots, poured coconut milk into it and let it cook over the fire for about 8 hours. Not quite as easy as Uncle Ben’s 2 minute rice, but way more fun and delicious. It was also super nice just hanging out in the community, but without feeling too much like a guest. I love it when I go over to someone’s house, and they give me something to do.

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After putting the lomong over the fire, we moved on to having the last iftaar (the meal when you break the fast) of the year. This was soon followed by a Justin Bieber guitar sing-a-long, fireworks (pictured above), cannons booming, a late night motorbike ride around the kampung (village), a power outage, and then watching a zombie movie when the electricity came back on. Basically, it was one of the best nights I’ve spent in Malaysia.

The next day (Hari Raya) started off with my roommate’s student dressing us up is her older sister’s more fashionable baju kurungs, complete with headscarves. Once we were all made up, we headed out to visit a few teachers and eat some delicious lomong with rendang. At the end of it, I was a little tired (over 24 hours without any alone time was hard for an introvert like me), but I was so happy to be in Malaysia for the holiday. It let me feel more connected to the community, and I hope I’ll have a few more moments like that before I leave Malaysia.

Malacca

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One of the perks of being an ETA in Malaysia is getting to visit other countries during our long school breaks. But Malaysia has some pretty sweet spots too, so I’ve been trying to use weekends to visit different cities here. A few weekends ago, I headed to Malacca, an old colonial town by the sea.

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Walking around the first night, the first thing that stuck out to me were the murals and street art I stumbled upon. I know, I know. I need to stop gushing about street art. But this was a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How could I have not taken a picture of it?

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I had to take a picture of this one because it made me laugh. Lah is a word used by Malaysians to emphasize statements. Ex: The drivers here are crazy, lah.

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And one more, because why not?

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I didn’t go to Malacca just to stare at murals though. Malacca has a lot of historical buildings and some fascinating museums. We went to the Baba Nyonya museum, where you could tour a Peranakan house. One incredibly bizarre museum we went to was The People’s Museum, which featured an eclectic mix of exhibitions, including ones on kite flying, top spinning and beauty as torture. The captions kept referring to people with tattoos as “modern primitives” and included a scathing paragraph on Guns N’ Roses, which concluded with the statement, “No one knows what his [Axel Rose] definition of terrorism is.”

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Malacca was also a wonderfully walkable city. We would just wander from temples to museums to restaurants, and stumble across antique stores and beautiful buildings. Oh man, that sentence made me sound like a grandmother.

Street art, crazy museums and acting like an old lady. I realize that might make some people never want to visit Malacca, but it was an awesome weekend trip for me.

Driving

car

Today, as you probably know, is David Hasselhoff’s birthday.

I found out that fact this morning as I was listening to the radio while driving to school. It reminded me that I wanted to write a post about my transportation situation in Malaysia.

The picture above is of the car I’m renting this year. I’ve nicknamed it David Hasselhoff. Here’s why:

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Yep, this car’s interior is straight out of the 80s. Which is remarkable, considering it was made in 2002.

All snarking aside, I really appreciate having this car. It’s a tiny little thing, which is awesome for parking. It’s also has these racing stickers along the sides of the car, and conveniently, on half of the windshield. It’s a good thing I’m short; otherwise, I’d never see the road. And the CD player doesn’t work, so I listen to the radio now. The one English station we get plays an eclectic mix of music. One minute I have to endure a Selena Gomez song, and the next, I get inordinately excited because they’re playing I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee Da Ba Die).

Driving in Malaysia has been an interesting experience. I was expecting to be confused by driving on the left side, but I adapted fairly quickly (though I still occasionally get mixed up). What I was not expecting was how aggressive driving is here. This guide to driving in Malaysia gives you an idea of what it’s like on the road (read it, it’s hilarious). My favorite lines are:

The most important rule is that you must arrive at your destination ahead of the car in front of you. This is the sacrosanct rule of driving in Malaysia.

It is sometimes useful to turn on your left hand indicator if you want to merge right, because this confuses other drivers enabling you to take advantage of an unprotected gap in the traffic.

One of the things that stresses me out most while driving here is how frequently vehicles overtake each other. This happens to me a lot, since my car can’t go over 80km/hr (about 50mi/hr). I’m in a more rural place, where the roads are narrow, windy and littered with huge logging trucks and wild boars (seriously). It’s a little scary to get on a narrow road and constantly see a pair of headlights coming straight at you. On the plus side, driving in a rural area means no stop lights!

So here’s to you David Hasselhoff (the car). I’m grateful for the freedom you give me.

Ho Chi Minh City

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And now, almost a month later, what I remember about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City:

I don’t know if it’s because I’m exhausted by the end, but I always end up liking the last city I visit the least. It happened in Siam Reap (not that Angkor Wat wasn’t great, but I really liked Phnom Penh), it happened in Yogyakarta, and it happened in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh is way more cosmopolitan than Hanoi and while that has its perks (hello, Mexican food!), it’s also a lot more overwhelming. The traffic was insane (I witnessed several motorbike accidents) and it didn’t have any of the charm or uniqueness of Hanoi (more rats and cockroaches though). Still, we got to see some really neat things in the city, while enjoying delicious, fresh fruit smoothies.

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One of the first things we did (other than go on a wild goose chase in search of Chinatown) was set out for the War Remnants Museum. The museum was… hard to describe. It’s powerful, yes, and fascinating, but those words seem a little too trite. It was hard, but important, to read about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective.

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To be honest, I don’t know a lot about the Vietnam War. In all of the classes I’ve taken, we’ve only talked about the draft and soldiers coming home with PTSD, but never about the reasons for going to war, or American conduct during the war. Before this year, I didn’t know that America had been accused and found guilty of genocide in Vietnam (albeit not by a large international body). I know I’ve been frustrated with how little Malaysian students learn about world history (swastikas are a popular gang symbol here, in part because they don’t understand the historical context behind it). Even adults in Malaysia have asked me about genocide and what it is (it’s included in the name of my major; people don’t just talk to me about genocide randomly, though I would love it if they did). Although we do have the freedom to talk about these issues in the US, touchy subjects, like the US being accused of genocide multiple times, are still avoided. Is this done out of a sense of patriotism, or the idea that America can do no wrong? Or is it that if we start talking about how the military can condone massacres  during war, the public will have a lot more questions when we go to war again?

Again, I don’t know a lot about the Vietnam War, and I don’t think it particularly fits the definition of genocide, but the museum gave me a lot to think about. If you’re even just being accused of committing genocide, you’re probably doing something wrong.

The museum also had a section on war photography. It feels strange to say that the photographs were beautiful, but they were. I can’t imagine the time or dedication it takes to go to a war zone, not only to document it, but to spend time thinking about lighting and f stops so that those photographs convey a message.

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On our last day, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels a little outside of Ho Chi Minh. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong to get around, ambush soldiers and transport supplies. Though the number of tunnels and the land that they covered was huge, the tunnels themselves were not. That hole in the picture? That’s the entrance to the tunnel. I could barely fit inside. Once inside, you couldn’t stand up straight. In the bigger parts of the tunnel, you could walk if you hunched over a lot. In the smaller parts, you’d have to crawl on your hands and knees. And they’re underground, meaning that it’s incredibly hard to breathe in there.

Our guide allowed us to get inside a tunnel that’s been preserved (some of the other tunnels were made wider for tourists) and after about three minutes in there I had to get out. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see anything and also, there was a bat. It was terrifying and I couldn’t imagine doing that for years like some people did. I guess when it’s a matter of survival, you do what you have to do, but seeing sights like this confirm my opinion that I would not make it in a war.

Our guide was a really intriguing man who had worked for the US military during the war, and you could tell he was really passionate about educating us about different aspects of the war. I can’t imagine spending every day taking a bunch of tourists to a place that reminds you of an incredibly trying time in your life. It reminded me of the man I met close to Murambi, a genocide memorial in Rwanda. He spent every day at that site because his wife and children had died there. But it wasn’t a sad place for him. Rather, it was his way of connecting with them, and he seemed to find comfort in spending time where his family spent their last hours. And our guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels seemed to be the same way. There was a point in the tour where you could stop at the shooting range (yes, a shooting range at a war memorial) and our guide mentioned that it made him really happy to hear the gunshots. He said that before, when he heard shots, he knew his friends were dying, but now when he heard them, he knew no one was dying.

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Not everything I did in Ho Chi Minh had to do with the war. We took a boat trip on the Mekong Delta one day, and saw a small coconut candy business. There was also a random python there that you could hold. Because why not? We then took an even smaller boat to a village to hear some traditional songs and eat fruit. The highlight there was a really ugly looking fish that freaked out when someone made a face at it. All in all, the boat trip was alright, but since I was comparing it to Ha Long Bay, which was amazing, it wasn’t the greatest.

I know I started out saying that Ho Chi Minh wasn’t that great, and I still like Hanoi better, but through writing this post, I’ve realized that the city gave me a lot to think about. And that’s pretty valuable in my book.

Hanoi

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After Thailand, I headed to Vietnam for a week. I was listening to House of Heroes’ The End is Not the End on the flight there and it was the perfect soundtrack, considering the country’s history. I spent the first few days in Hanoi, which is an incredibly quaint city. I loved walking around looking at the French architecture and eating baguettes.

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One of our first stops was Maison Centrale, a prison first used by the French and then by the North Vietnamese. It was somewhat surreal to see this charming French building with a courtyard and then go inside and read about what happened during colonialism and the war.

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Maison Centrale was one of the best museums I’ve gone to in SE Asia in terms of having well laid out displays, so I had to remind myself constantly that there was a certain bias in the information presented. This was most apparent in the POW part of the museum, where it was stated that the prisoners had a lot of fun doing activities during their captivity. I tend to forget that all museums have a bias, and this experience made me think of all the information in American museums that I have accepted blindly.

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We also went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which was a great experience. The museum incorporates a lot of art while talking about Ho Chi Minh’s life, which was fascinating and really exciting to my art-starved self.

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One day, we went up to Ha Long Bay, which has about 2000 limestone cliffs surrounding it. It was an incredibly beautiful place, albeit slightly marred by the hundreds of boats offering cruises for tourists. On our cruise we stopped to explore a cave, and then saw a floating village.

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The last thing we did in Hanoi was go to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university and a Confucian temple, which was built in 1070. It was interesting meandering through the calm courtyards, and seeing various statues and lakes set up throughout.

Next up, a blog post on Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City).

Thailand

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About a month ago, I had a two week school holiday. My first stop was Phuket, Thailand, and it was absolutely wonderful for two main reasons.

1.  I was spending the week with my boyfriend and a few friends from the good ol’ US of A.

2. Because my friends were coming over for a vacation and not a two month backpacking adventure, we sprung for a nice guesthouse, and in the words of Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.” (I’m pretty sure that directly contradicts Frost’s point, but I feel like I’ve been taking the road less traveled for the past six months, and the beds are just not as comfortable there.)

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On the first day, we did a tour of Phuket Town and stopped by a few temples. It’s been interesting to see how temples differ between the various Southeast Asian countries. Thailand was the first time I saw people applying what looks like gold leaf to statues.

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We also did a Phi Phi Island Tour and saw the most beautiful limestone cliffs along the way. These cliffs never fail to amaze me, although there are a few fairly close to where I live in Malaysia. Every time I’m driving and see one peeking over the horizon, I think maybe all the bugs and scorpions are worth the view.

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One of the most interesting things we did was going up to mainland Thailand to ride elephants and canoe. Our elephant’s name was Wasma and her guide was an aspiring photographer, so he soon grabbed my camera and hopped off, allowing my boyfriend and me to get off the seat and plop down on Wasma’s neck.  Canoeing was a little less fun because it had started to rain steadily by then, but we did see a python curled up in a tree above our heads.

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Since we were on an island known for its beaches, we decided to check those out too. I was expecting something like Tioman, but there was a completely different vibe, complete with big waves, huge groups of people and parasailing.

All in all, it was a really great week and it reminded me how wonderful it was to spend more than a few days in one place. I’m going to spend all week in one city on my next vacation in August (I know, this vacation thing is out of control), and I’m really excited about that.