A t-shirt for sale in Melaka pictures four rows of faces with the tag line “Malaysian Expressiveness”. Each face has the applicable emotion under it (happy, shocked, sad, etc), and each and every expression is exactly the same: a smiling, happy face. The t-shirt was the perfect synthesis of my time in Malaysia; the Malay people were among the most genuinely happy and friendly that I have ever met. I’ve been told, time and time again, that this friendliness and genuinity will only be exacerbated as I make my way upward, toward Thailand and Laos. I don’t doubt it, but it merits noting that from my arrival in Kuala Lumpur to the border crossing south of Melaka, I’ve found the Malay to be engaging, warm and inviting – more so than I have encountered on my trip thus far.
Having flown from Beijing after three weeks of Joel’s generosity of spirit and his roommates opening their home to me, I appreciated the extra time and effort from Sofie at Red Palm Hostel in KL (for making it her mission to have me “eat well” in KL, to the owners of the Discovery Cafe in Melaka (for offering me unlimited teh tarik and advice about my travels), to Jared’s friends Justin and Mohan (for allowing us to crash on their office desk and floor for 4 nights and ensuring that we were intellectually stimulated and alcoholed-up during our brief stop in Singapore). In the end, traveling is about meeting people as much as it is about seeing places, and I’ve been quite lucky thus far.
As Jared had already spent a few days in KL, I flew in early to do some exploring and, upon Lea Ann (the JAL 747 pilot who I met back in Peru on the Salkantay trek)’s recommendation, stayed at the Red Palm. Winner of many awards for their service (in large part due to the patience and friendliness of Sofie, who runs the hostel), the Red Palm was a lovely way to spend some time in KL, right in the heart of the Golden Triangle on Tengkat Tong Shin road. I did the touristy Hop on Hop off bus and, along with 3 Irishmen I met on the bus, went to KL’s gargantuan bird park and ate at the many hawker stalls along Jalan Alor’s night market, near the hostel. Jared flew in on the 23rd and we spent the next few days running in and out of the rain, picking up some odds and ends in the Suria KLCC shopping mall and taking pictures of us climbing or holding up the Petronas Towers. We inspired a whole slew of people to do the same; taking silly pictures is wholeheartedly contagious.
Our few days in KL were those directly before Deepavali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) and it was an extremely opportune time to visit the Batu Caves. Carved into the limestone cliffs overlooking the Batu river, Batu Caves consist of interlocking temples, caves and shrines sitting 272 steps above the Batu Town. A popular pilgrimage site for Hindu pilgrims, Batu caves was hopping with life: monkeys scurried up and down the railings leading up to the caves, colourful flower wreaths decorated each of the passerbys and there were plenty of smiling tourists to go around. Looming over the caves is a 47.5 meter high statue of Lord Murugan, the largest of such statues in Malaysia. Jared and I each had a puja (reverent blessing) at the temples and returned to KL feeling happy and hungry.
We took the bus to Melaka after a few days in KL, and in contrast to KL’s hustle, bustle and neon glow, Melaka’s old town was full of winding roads and out of the wall alleys. Though Melaka has since grown into a metropolis, we were staying in Chinatown, now a UNESCO heritage site and steeped in history. And steeped in good food. Lots and lots of good food.
The city was initially founded between 1376 and 1400 by Parameswara, a Sumatran prince fleeing his homeland and was one of the largest sea ports and trading posts of its time, rivaling those of Phuket and Singapore. Captured in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and British and finally made part of Malaysia, Melaka was a meltingpot of architecture, cuisine and back alleys to discover. Chinatown was the heart of the Old Town, and bustling with Malay, Singaporean and European tourists. The night market on Jonkers Street was the weekend’s highlight, with great hawker stalls to choose from and buckets of beer to enjoy. And we discovered that Melaka is called Malaysia’s “cuisine capital” for a reason: from cool, refreshing cendol to fiery baba-nonya (or Peranakan) cuisine to satay celup, there were plenty of culinary tastes to savour. We also met two engineers working for Petronas and a chemist for Imperial Tobacco and ended up spending the next few days with them, sitting outside the city’s many bars and watching passerbys. Quick: what do you get with 2 oil engineers, a tobacco chemist and a lawyer at the table? The beginnings of a bad bad joke.
After a relaxing few days in Melaka, Jared and I took an easy four hour bus ride from Melaka to Singapore (a huge departure from the 32 hour bus trips in Patagonia!) and made our way to the National University of Singapore (NUS), where Jared’s friend Justin has secured funding from the Governement of Singapore and NUS to form Garag3, an idea incubator for young entrpreneurs, donating office space, computers and other like-minded people against whom they could bounce off ideas. Justin was generous enough to lend his office desk and floor to us and while I set up a fold out mattress on a desk and slept there for the 4 days, Jared did the same on the floor (first with a folding chair, then a mattress).
Our aim in coming to Singapore was to attend the inaugaural Asian Youth Energy Summit (yes, yes – we ARE aware that we are neither Asian nor Youth), designed to promote clean energy solutions and sustainable development in the coming millenium. While primarily Asia-centric, I was able to meet and discuss microfinance with Mr. Dipal Barua, who heads up Grameen Shakti, a Grameen family organization that delivers green energy on the same principles that its parent company, the Grameen Bank – primarily via microcredit and the empowerment of women. Grameen Shakti (or Grameen Energy) has won several awards for their work, and have been able to utilize the goodwill and networks created by the Grameen Bank (spearheaded by Mohammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his microfianance work), with enormous success. I’ve been enthusing about the benefits of microfinance and microcredit for awhile now, and was thrilled to have a long conversation with one of its pioneers in the unlikely setting of AYES. I was proud to tell him that many of my friends and family have been deeply involved in fundraising for similarly grass-roots organisations, from Craig setting up the NYC chapter of Kiva to Neda and Lindsay motivating Stanford’s student body to raise money to buy several rural villages a cow via Heifer International. It was both surreal and gratifying to have an engaged discussion with Mr. Barua about the differences between North America, Europe and Asia in environmental protection, micro
credit and non-profit practice and policy. With great speakers and interesting panelists alike, the conference was a success for Singapore and an interesting way to spend a few days.
Coinciding with AYES was Jared’s favorite holiday: Halloween. We spent 2 nights of Halloweenization, first with INSEAD (and Jared’s friends Taylor and Lee from Toronto) and then with Mohan at the Chivas Regal halloween party. On a backpacker’s budget, we took what we could find costumewise cobbled together a Halloween-y costume with cheap moustaches, hats and toy guns.
All in all, three very different cities, each a lot of fun in their own way. Jared and I then flew from Singapore to Phuket, beginning several weeks of exploration on Thailand’s Andaman Coast. I’m currently in Ko Lanta and will be heading to Krabi tomorrow to start exploring the mainland of Thailand.