May 09, 2006 GMT

It's a short ferry rideacross the river from Thailand into Malaysia. Since it is Friday afternoon, most everyone in this Muslim country is praying. If they're not praying, they're certainly not hanging out at the customs office. We're anticipating a long wait for someone to return but somehow manage to locate an official who runs through all the usual border-crossing routines.

welcome to Malaysia

While majority-Buddhist Thailand's southern corner was largely Muslim, this corner of Malaysia reveals a surprising number of Buddhist temples. Some are full of people celebrating Songkran, the Buddhist New Year. We don't get cleansed with any roadside water dousings though. Eastern Malaysia is more conservative than other parts of the country as evidenced in peoples' dress and religious sensibilities. Signs are written in Arabic, Chinese and Bahasa Malaya. It's nice to see Latin script used in Bahasa Malayan signs after dealing for so long with the mysteries of written Thai, Lao, Hindi, Nepali, and other indecipherables. Even though we still have no idea what any of it says. The three predominant groups in most of the country are Indian (not an Arabic speaking nationality), Chinese and Malay.


As a typical tourist, you enter a country via the largest city's airport. Traveling by road, we cross borders via some pretty obscure places. Don't tell the people who live in those places we said that. We've never heard of Kota Bharu but it's actually the capital of the state of Kelantan. This large city boasts numerous museums and attractions but they're all closed Fridays. The night market is open so we head over, still hungry after a restaurant noodle dinner. Dave likes to go to the Chinese places since they're the only ones that serve beer.

night market, Kota Bharu

The central region of the country contains Taman Negara National Park, host of the world's largest tropical rainforest. We kind of race through its rolling palm-studded hillsides as there's a lot of lost time to make up for.

somewhere near Taman Negara

Malaysia likes color. This is a refreshing change from the bland blocks of cancered concrete found in so many other places. Kuala Lipis is a kinda charming in an odd sort of way. The small bright downtown flanks a muddy river. An oversized carp at a liquid roundabout balances vertically on sculpted tail. The railway pass is turquoise blue. We eat at an Indian biryani (rice) place where a nice guy who speaks English takes lots of time to translate the entire menu.

Kuala Lipis

It's been raining on and off. Gray skies continue en route to the British colonial hill-station town of Bukit Fraser. Originally founded by a Scotsman who disappeared without a trace 25 years later, it became a holiday resort for Europeans craving escape from the muggy heat below. We meet a group of guys from Kuala Lumpur on the fanciest bikes we've seen in months. They're checking out the cool winding roads on a day trip and will head back soon. Most of Bukit Fraser seems to be hotels and English style stone resorts nestled amidst pines and ferns. The cheapest one is still pretty pricey, with slatted windows that allow the mosquito brigade to practice taps on our ankles. It's worth it to explore the primeval forests as rain slices the mist. Dave tries to record the awesomely echoey jungle noises but his cell phone isn't up to the job.

Dave, forest, blueberry disguise

We're not far now from Kuala Lumpur (also known as "KL"), the spread-out modern capital of Malaysia. Everything's tidy and spread out. From the freeway circling downtown you can see some beautiful old architecture, including the previously governmental Moorish Sultan Abdul Samad building near Independence Square and the Masjid Negara (National Mosque). Mostly KL is a skyscraper kinda place. We're happy to find a hotel right in Chinatown with its smattering of hybrid Asian/Colonial architecture, along with a lot of newer stuff. While in the internet cafe the loudest thunderstorm EVER just about knocks our socks off.

KL Chinatown

Erika goes up the pinnacle of the KL Tower while Dave's getting some work done on the motorcycle. He's located a mechanic named Sonny who will help with (?) and later feed Dave dinner when he picks up the bike. The 360 degree view from the tower is astonishing and there's an excellent video presentation from 12 stations covering 30 degrees of scenery each. That's the world's largest TV screen in the bottom right corner.

view from KL Tower

Okay, so it's not. The view's still pretty amazing. Walking around KL is kinda dull in the sprawling modern parts. She circles the base of the glittering Petronas Twin Towers but has promised not to go up until Dave can share the ride. Instead she hangs out in the shopping mall with the school girls checking out the latest fashions.

school girls, Petronas shopping complex

And now it's raining again. Good luck to be at the beautiful Tourist Information Office just as it starts coming down. And they're showing a free traditional dance performance this very minute! It's well choreographed, with beautiful dancers in beautiful costumes. It's not even hokey til the very end, when all the dancers burst into song repeating the shimmering chorus: "Malaysia, Truly Asia". This seems like marketing designed to persuade the eight tourists at the show that what seems to be the continent's most developed and economically comfortable country is really the epitome "exoticness" expected by westerners trying on Asia for size. We quite like Malaysia, but Kuala Lumpur's towering buildings, excellent roads, pastel suburbs, and relatively common use of English feel kinda like Asia Lite. As far as the countries we've seen.

traditional dance

We get tickets the next morning for the 2:15 tour of the Petronas Twin Towers. This building was the world's tallest until 2004, when it were usurped by the Taipei Financial Center. The United States' Freedom Towers are projected to break that record, but only until 2009 when the Burj Dubai is completed in the United Arab Emirates. And the race goes on. We go up to the Sky Bridge on the 41st floor, less than halfway up to 88th at the top. It's as far as you can go as a tourist. People who work in the building's higher altitudes must have to wait about ten minutes for the elevator to arrive.

Erika, Petronas Towers

Before heading south we chat with a nursing student from Sarawak who's learning to do sonograms, then cruise past the National Mosque through KL's extensive botanical gardens. Then it's down the coast with its smattering of low key beaches and older resorts. Malaysia is pretty motorcycle-friendly--there are pull-offs under freeways where bikes can stop for shelter during rainstorms and narrow detours that let you bypass tolls that all the cars and trucks have to pay.

motorcycle road

We get off the highway and head towards the more interesting small coastal road. This passes through traditional kampugs, or villages, and mile upon mile of palm plantations. Homes with rusty peaked tin roofs sit on stilts to avoid the hazards of floods and bugs. Some are painted bright pastel colors; others show off pretty tile stairs leading up to the front door.

typical homes near Melaka

Melaka, or Malacca, is a waterfront town with a history occupied by Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English. It gained independence only 50 years ago. The rather salmon pink city hall is the oldest Dutch building in town. Tourists climb a small hill to see the Portuguese fort, transported by men in bicycle rickshaws overgrown with plastic flowers. A quaint waterway borders the nicely renovated Chinatown. At one of the beautiful temples, a rather persistent older fellow attaches himself to Dave, trying his endless best to enlighten Dave on the benefits of Buddhism. Didn't think the Buddha was much into proselytizing.

Melaka Chinatown

Dave decides as part of his Medical World Tour to visit the hospital in Melaka to check on his dormant kidney stone. Having already experienced the scarey delights of incomprehensible minimalist medical care in Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Laos, it's clear that this place is the best by far. Two competent doctors run some tests and report that everything's fine, sending us off for a remarkably good lunch at the canteen downstairs. Conclusion: if you have to get sick, do it in Malaysia. Not only are the facilities nearly on par with Western standards--but people speak English, too.

Despite the green light on the kidney stone, Dave's got a bad head cold and isn't up for much more sightseeing. Erika takes off back for a walk up to the Chinese cemetery but is advised that she shouldn't go up there without a male escort. Not that again. Instead she heads back to Chinatown, where she has an interesting chat in a tailor shop with the Chinese tailor and his Indian customer about things like whether Bush is on the right track. It's always surprising to talk to people in other countries who think he is. Or in our country for that matter. They're very hospitable, insisting she join them for tea.

at the tailor shop

Other interesting characters include the guy with the big iguana

the guy with the big iguana

the laquer box carver

the laquer box carver

and what's up with THAT guy, anyway?

the guy with

Most interesting is the Museum of Alternative Beauty.

street scene, KL

Posted by Erika Tunick at 10:02 AM GMT

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