(Literally) Stuck in Penang

If you haven’t been watching the news, there are political protests going on in Thailand right now. The protesters in Phuket took over the airport and train station, which means I am sort of stranded in Penang for at least another day. Even Bangkok is shut down, so that isn’t an option either.

I’ve contacted the place I’m staying at, and they are understanding. I think they are probably really pissed off. Even if you are sympathetic with what the protesters want (and I can’t really say I understand what is going on, even if I know the facts surrounding it) destroying your economy hardly seems to be a good way to go about getting political change.

On the plus side, I have a free, fast internet connection at the place I’m staying tonight, so hopefully I have my photos from KL and Penang uploaded.

Stuck in Penang

My few days in Penang has sort of turned into a week in Penang. Penang is an interesting place and not quite like anything else I’ve experienced in my travels so far.

Penang (along with Malaka) was recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Penang is an old port of the British East India Company and you can see that reflected in the architecture of the city. When you usually visit cities like this (thinking of old Spanish or British colonial cities in North America) the old buildings are usually restored and most of the buildings in the town, save for a few blocks, are new buildings. Not in Penang. Most of the buildings here are older Colonial buildings. Most have not been restored. They are used for day to day business and many are falling apart.

I have heard it said that George Town is what Singapore would be like if it hadn’t been kicked out of Malaysia in the 60’s. I think they are right.

Penang is a very Chinese city. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were walking around a Chinese city rather than a Malaysian one. Malaysia is a true multicultural country. The term “multicultural” is often thrown around in the US, but in reality it is more multiethnic than multicultural. The difference is subtle, but important. I know lots of people of Indian or Chinese descent from the US. While there are certainly some cultural influences they carry, they (like most European immigrants) will speak, follow sports, and otherwise carry on like Americans who have been in the US for generations. You can find enclaves where this is not true, but for the most part it is. It is certainly true for second or third generation immigrants to the country.

Penang is pretty cheap and the food here is very good. I’ve had great Indian and Chinese meals, and the have a night market with all sorts of food booths. I can get an enormous mug of limeade for a little over a dollar and large portions of grilled seafood and/or tandori chicken for only a few dollars on top of that.

A few days ago I woke up early and heard roosters crowing. Over the roosters came the sounds of the morning call to prayer from the mosque, and then on top of that, in the other direction, came church bells from the Catholic Church. I don’t think you are going to hear sounds like that in many places.

I finally leave for Thailand tomorrow. I’m scheduled to fly from Penang to Phuket, but yesterday the Phuket airport shut down because of the political protests. I hope they take Sundays off. My place in Phuket is stupid cheap. $8/day for my own room and bathroom. I can see why so many people go to Thailand.

Part of me is dreading Thailand for the same reason I was ambivalent about going to Bali. Thailand is an enormous tourist destination, especially for Europeans and it draws a lot of hippies. When the tsunami hit here several years ago, it was the biggest natural disaster in the history of ……Norway.

I haven’t been doing much writing this week. This is due 95% to sloth and laziness on my part and 5% to the wireless connection not working in my hotel. While there is nothing stopping me from writing offline, for some reason it is just easier to do when I have a live connection.

George Town

I got up early yesterday to pack and check out of my hotel so I could get to the train station for the 9:15am train to Penang. As it turns out, there either isn’t a 9:15 train, or it was full. Either way, I had to wait for the 2:19pm train, which didn’t show up until 3pm.

The train ride was boring and very uneventful. The scenery in central Malaysia is very pretty, especially going through some of the highland areas.

As a rule, I try to avoid arriving in new places after dark. You can’t see anything and you have no feel for the place. I got into the train station at about 9:30, well after sunset. When you arrive in Penang (the Butterworth station) you have to walk about 5 min to go to the ferry terminal to take a short ferry ride to George Town, the primary city in Pengang.

On the ferry, I had a bizarre sense of deja vu. Whenever I arrive some place new, I almost always go through a process of comparing it to someplace else I’ve been. From the ferry, George Town reminded me of Macau (minus the casinos) and walking around the town, I was reminded of Vigan in the Philippines. Like George Town, both of those places have strong architectural reminders of their colonial past.

While I’m still in Malaysia, this is very different from KL. I’ve seen two women here with head scarves. I’d say about half in KL had them. Most of George Town seems to be Chinese. Most of the tourists I’ve met so far are just here to get their Thailand visas renewed.

I’ll only be here another day or so before I go to Phuket. I’ll be there at least a week working on my Rescue Diver course.

The Seven Wonders of Japan

I bring you, in no particular order, the Seven Wonders of Japan.

Photography by http://flickr.com/photos/anjin/

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto
Kiyomizu-dera is a Tendi Buddhist temple in Kyoto and is one of the oldest and best-known temples in a historic city filled with temples. The current building was built in 1633 by the third Tokugawa shogun and temples on the location date back to 798. Situated on Mount Otowa, Kiyomizu offers a stunning view of the surrounding area.

Kiyomizu gets its name from a nearby 13m waterfall. People would often jump off the temple into the water below (a practice which is now banned). “Jumping from Kiyomizu Temple” has become a saying in Japan for doing something daring.

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle, Himeji
Himeji Castle (Himeji-jo) is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. Construction originally started in 1331, Himeji was untouched by the devastation in WWII, unlike Osaka and Hiroshima Castles. Himeji is considered one of the three great castles of Japan, along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle.

Castle holds a commanding view of all the surrounding flat land area, which made it ideal for a military fortification. In addition to its large keep and thick walls, the paths inside the compounds are a maze designed to confuse potential attackers.

Himeji can be visited via day trip from Kyoto or Hiroshima via the Shinkansen, and the castle is within easy walking distance from the train station.

A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

Peace Park, Hiroshima
On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima, Japan became the first city ever to be destroyed with an atomic bomb. As Hiroshima rebuilt after the war, a decision was made to keep the ruins of the Genbaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome) standing as a reminder of the devastation, and the centerpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Park. The dome and the area of the park was ground zero for the blast which killed over 100,000 people.

The park draws visitors from all over the world who come, not only to remember those killed in the war but to hope for future peace.

In addition to the A-Bomb Dome, there are memorials to the children killed in the explosions, a peace library, and museum, an eternal peace flame, as well as several acres of park area. Visitors should take the time to ring the Peace Bell.

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto
Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Built on the grounds of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, the pavilion was created to hold relics of the Buddha. The top two floors of the building is coated in gold leaf, which is where it gets its distinctive name.

The pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a deranged monk and rebuilt in 1955. The pavilion and the surround pond and garden are one of the most photographed scenes in Japan.

Shinkansen in Kagoshima
Shinkansen in Kagoshima

The Shinkansen
No trip to Japan would be complete without taking a trip on the Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen.

The Shinkansen is the heart of the extensive Japanese rail system. While most of the trains in Japan are normal trains, the Shinkansen are kept on a separate rails designed for rapid transit. The Shinkansen can achieve a top speed of 300kph (180mph). There are no road or rail crossing on Shinkansen tracks. The speed of the train would make an accident devastating.

High-speed Shinkansen trains can be taken from Kagoshima in the far south to Hachinohe in the north, covering most of the country.

Photo by http://flickr.com/photos/kamoda/

Fuji-san (Mount Fuji)
Could any list of the Seven Wonders of Japan be complete without Mount Fuji? Mount Fuji is not only the highest point in Japan but is a symbol of the country which has been used in countless pieces of artwork. Fuji is an active stratovolcano but has not erupted since 1707.

Approximately 200,000 people climb Mount Fuji each year, and visiting Mount Fuji is a popular destination for tourists. On a clear day, the summit of Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo. The most popular months for climbing Fuji are July and August.

Visiting the base of Mount Fuji can be easily done on a day trip from Tokyo.


If you dont think noodles can be a wonder, you havent been to Japan
If you don’t think noodles can be a wonder, you haven’t been to Japan

Ramen in Fukuoka
Japanese cuisine ranks among the best in the world. While sushi often gets the attention, one of the staple foods of Japan is ramen.

Originally a Chinese dish, ramen first became popular in Japan during the Meiji period in the 19th Century. Japanese ramen is a far cry from the instant noodles which many westerners think of when they hear ramen.

Ramen was believe to have been brought to Japan by Chinese merchants in Fukuoka. Fukuoka ramen is known for its rich, pork based Tonkotsu ramen, topped with a pork cutlet.


Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of the Philippines | Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt | Seven Wonders of Spain

My Malaysian Malaise

I love big buildings and KL has two
I love big buildings and KL has two
I’m feeling much better now. Thank you to everyone who sent me well wishes in the comments and on Twitter. The worst of it was over in a few hours, but I spent over a day just sleeping with my entire body sore and tired. I’m back at 100% now, and oddly enough, as one of the commenters pointed out, getting sick like that was almost like going on a fast, just that it all happened over a span of a few hours. Since then, I’ve been eating a much better, which is pretty easy to do in KL.

I’ve been here for a week now and I haven’t said a word about Malaysia or KL, so I should probably take the time to describe the what has been happening.

I’m staying at a great little hotel near the biggest shopping area in KL, Times Square. Times Square is a giant mall with a giant amusement park inside. The roller coaster they have puts the Mall of America to shame. The prices in KL are, if not the cheapest I’ve seen, certainly be best value I’ve seen on my trip. I got a single room here, free wifi, my own bathroom and hot water, and a nice bed with nice sheets, for $30/night. A high end hotel room is about US$100/night. I really have no complaints. Food is cheap. The exchange rate is US$1 = RM$3.3 (Ringgit Malaysian). I have to constantly remind myself that the 50 ringgit notes I’m carrying around are really like $15. A monorail trip is less than US$0.50. I can eat a very large sushi meal for under US$15, which is hard to do anywhere else.

Indonesia or the Philippines might in some sense be technically cheaper, but things in KL are much nicer than what you’ll find in Manila or Jakarta. Much. KL is a full blown modern city. It is very easy to get around here. English is widely spoken and many of the signs are in English.

I’m finding Bahasa to be one of the easiest languages to pick up that I’ve experienced on my trip. Many of the words come from English, but are just spelled or pronounced differently (Bas = Bus, Polisi = Police, Teksi = Taxi, Sentral = Central) Because they use the Roman Alphabet, it is easy to pick up words which aren’t based in English, because the words are often in context, or are next to an English translation . (Keluar = Exit, Masuk = Entrance). Pretty much everyone I’ve met in Malaysia, including my time in Sabah and Sarawak in January, speaks passable English.

The ethinic make up on Malaysia is sort of the mirror image of Singapore. Malaysia is mostly Malay, with a significant Chinese minority, and a smaller Indian minority. Many, but not all women wear Islamic head scarves. It is an Islamic country, but very moderate and freedom of religion is the law (in fact, the government will provide land for non-Muslim churches to be built for free).

One thing which sort of surprised me was seeing women in full blown, eye slot only, black burqas at the mall near my hotel. I had not seen a single woman dress like that in Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak or Indonesia. I figured there was just a conservation group of Muslims in KL. It turns out that they are tourists from the Middle East. I just had no clue because…..well, you can’t see anything under a burqa. KL has become a big tourist destination for Arabs since 9/11. It’s cheap, modern, and you can find halal food everywhere.

I have to say I’ve been surprised by KL. I’m not exactly sure what my expectations for KL were before I arrived, but I think they’ve been surpassed.

I Feel Crappy, Oh So Crappy

About a half hour after I posted about the new website last night, my body went into full scale revolt. I spent the next several hours either on, or above the toilet as my body expelled every bit of food from my system. I’ve spent most of today sleeping. I got up around noon to eat something. I had miso soup and few pieces of sushi, then went back to bed. I spent all day sleeping, waking up to take a hot shower, then going back to sleep. My whole body aches right now and I’m still probably a bit dehydrated. My dinner was sliced fruit.

The Chinese lady who runs the place I’m staying at has been wonderful. Every time I come downstairs, she is saying “Mister Gary. You must eat something. Let me make something for you”. I’m going to stay in KL a few more days until I feel better. The place I’m staying is nice and affordable with free wifi, so I figure I’ll just stay put.

Thanks for the comments on the new layout of the site. I have a list of changes and fixes I’ll have to make.

With that, I’m going back to bed….


Those of you who are reading this on the website can already tell something is afoot. If you are reading this via RSS, take a second to go over to the website to see what is up.

I’ve had some time in Kuala Lumpur to do something of the changes I’ve been meaning to make to the website for months. The old WordPress theme I’ve been using had a lot of drawbacks. While I did get a lot of compliments on the look, it made the site less than optimal. The spaces between columns were too big, so I couldn’t use space efficiently. The rounded edges meant that every time you hit the page, there were tons of small images which had to be downloaded. The navigation was buried down below the fold. The background images and the code associated with them were huge, and to top it off, the theme was no longer being developed, so as newer versions of WordPress came out, the theme couldn’t take advantage of them.

What you see now isn’t final, but it is functional enough to go with. There are a bunch of little things I need to fix, but its 2am here and I need to go to bed.

If you have any suggestions or find any problems, let me know. I may have to make some changes to past content. I’ll also get a better header image at some point.

McHawker: McDonald’s in Singapore

McDonalds at the Singapore Harborfront
McDonald's at the Singapore Harborfront
Writing about McDonald’s in Singapore is a bit of a challenge. Singapore is a small country. To be honest there isn’t much about the McDonald’s here which I found all that different than in say, Australia. Almost all the McDonald’s had the McCafe attached to it, which I’ve found all over Asia/Pacific. The menu itself wasn’t very radical. You could get a cup of corn on the side and the breakfast menu had a filet-o-fish on it. I was told that some McDonald’s had (or have) a rice burger on the menu (see my Taiwan McDonald’s post) but I didn’t see it in Singapore.

There are a surprising number of McDonald’s in Singapore. Something which I found in other mostly Chinese cities (Taipei, Hong Kong) but not in the rest of Asia. In addition to McDonald’s I saw almost every other brand of fast food restaurant in Singapore: Long John Silvers, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut. They even had a MOS Burger. (see my Japan post)

Hawker stands near the harbor front MRT station
Hawker stands near the harbor front MRT station
The number and variety of fast food places you’ll find in Singapore is a reflection of it being a modern and developed city. Yet, I doubt that most people come away from Singapore thinking of fast food chains when they think of Singapore food. Singapore has a LOT of places to eat. By far the most of any city I’ve been to. Moreover it isn’t just a lot of places, but an enormous variety of foods.

Most neighborhoods will have hawker stands, which are basically like mall food courts, minus the mall (and Singapore does have a lot malls). When I first visited Singapore in 1999 I suffered, for the first time in my life, from information overload. I went to a hawker stand and was confronted with so many choices that I had no idea what to pick. The average American food court will have “the chinese place”, “the italian place”, maybe “the japanese place”, with various other western chain restaurants.

Hawker stand selling economic rice...whatever that is
Hawker stand selling economic rice...whatever that is
In Singapore, you don’t just have “Chinese food” or “Indian food” (and given how big those countries are, those really are misnomers anyway. It is like saying “European Food” and lumping together French, Italian, German and Scandinavian food). Some places focus on noodle bowls, some just on chicken, some on seafood, some do Indian hot pot, some do Indian halal food, some do just certain Malay dishes. You get the idea. You can easily have over 20 booths in a hawker stand.

…and it’s all really cheap.

If you go down to the riverfront in Singapore, you’ll see just as large a diversity of food, just more upscale. North Indian cuisine, Thai, Chinese Seafood, traditional Chinese. I’ve even saw a Cuban restaurant near Chinatown.

Next to Tokyo (and probably surpassing it) Singapore is easily the best food city I’ve seen on my trip. Within a 10-15 min walk of most places, I bet you could find enough different places to eat to eat out for every meal and never have to visit the same place in a week.

If you ever find yourself in Singapore, skip the McDonald’s and head to a hawker stand.

Bye Bye Bintan

Where I stayed in Bintan
Where I stayed in Bintan
I’m writing this in Bintan, sitting on a gazebo perched atop the water on the Straits of Malakka. My bus to the ferry terminal leaves in about an hour, so I figure I’d take this time to do a short write up of my week. I don’t normally write reviews of the places I stay at, but I figure I’d make an exception, because I found this to be very affordable, in a nice location, in close proximity to Singapore. (FYI, I am assuming an exchange rate of 10,000 rupiah to the US Dollar in everything below).

The name of the resort is the Yasin Nostalgia Resort. It is the low end cousin of the Agr0 Beach Resort which is a five minute walk up the road from here. Agra is sort of the high end resort (nonetheless, the top end jacuzzi room only costs US$100 a night). The great part about staying at Yasin is that even though you are only paying US$13 a night, you can go to the other resort and use all their facilities including a pool, restaurant and spa. They will also shuttle you to the main resort for no cost. The walk is an easy one. I was able to walk from one to another during it time it took for one long song to play on my iPod. Also, there is a school along the way so you’ll have a ton of kids waving to you saying “Hullo Mist-tuh”.

In the five days I was here, I pretty much didn’t do a damn thing. I got completely caught up on my photos, edited a podcast episode, totally deleted another episode because it sucked so bad, and got another one ready to go. I also ate a lot of cheap food.

To give you an idea of the prices here, a can of coke was US$0.60. Compare that to Tahiti where the same can would cost US$5. You could order off the menu here and most things could cost around US$1.80. Save for three meals I had at the restaurant which I paid in cash, and the occasional use of internet time (which was US$3/hour…cheap), my total bill for 5 days, room, food and drinks, came to US$94.

It isn’t just that it’s cheap. The bungalows are nice and you can get some above the water. A similar (albeit nicer) room in Bora Bora would cost over US$300 a night….plus you have to fly to Bora Bora. Granted, my expectation of luxury are much lower than most people. They had no hot water and the toilets had no water tank. You had to dump a bucket of water in the bowl. But still, even the “high end” resort, the normal rooms were US$45/night.

I’ve been to a few places now that have all shared similar features: smallish resorts, friendly staff, locally made bungalows, and cheap price. Others include the VIllage Inn in Pohnpei, the Village Inn in Kosrae, and place I stayed in Bali the name of which I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it had a stone bathtub the size of a sarcouphous.

One of the dirty secrets I’ve learned traveling is that the best places to stay aren’t the most expensive ones. As a treat to myself, I stayed a weekend at le Meridian in New Caledonia. The room was nice, the bathroom was nice, but in the end, that was all I was paying for. A lot of money for nice sheets. I didn’t meet anyone and the food was over priced. If you want to stay in your room the whole time (which, when you travel like me, is exactly what you want to do sometimes) My standards for luxury now are hot water and a bath tub. (I’m not a big bath guy, but sometimes you just need to sit in water for a long time to get the grime off you and the dirt out from under your fingernails) Oh, and free internet, which you almost certainly will never, ever find in an expensive hotel. The cheaper the hotel, the better the odds of getting free internet.

Hopefully, I”ll be able to find more places like this in the coming weeks as I work my way through SE Asia. I might even stay a few nights in a swank hotel just because the cost of doing so will probably much cheaper than in a place like Singapore or Australia.