McDonald’s Malaysia: Golden Arches Over The South China Sea

Ayam Goreng aka Friend Chicken
Ayam Goreng aka Friend Chicken
This post was nine months in the making. Just as Malaysia is split into two distinct parts, my visit to Malaysia was separated by over half a year. I visited Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo in January and I visited Peninsular Malaysia in August. I could have written the post back then, but I wanted to wait until I at least passed through Kuala Lumpur before I summarized the Malaysian McDonald’s experience.

The first thing you notice at a Malaysian McDonald’s is that hamburgers are called beefburgers. At first, I didn’t know why, but eventually, it dawned on me. Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country (about 60%). Hamburgers are called beefburgers so there is no ambiguity that the sandwiches are not made with pork. As the A1 commercial used to say “what is hamburger? chopped ham? no, chopped steak!” You’ll never find any pork products at all in a McDonald’s in a Muslim country because the kitchen needs to be certified Halal. Every McDonald’s I visited in Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang had a Halal certification.

While Malaysia is mostly Muslim, it is not totally Muslim. It is a multicultural country with a very significant Chinese minority. Unfortunately, the favorite protein source of Chinese is pork (I’m currently reading a book on KFC in China. They have the demographics in there). You’d think that Chinese and Muslim dietary habits wouldn’t fit well together, but they each share a common taste for chicken. There were two unique items on the menu in Malaysia: Bubur Ayam and Ayam Goreng. Ayam, as you can probably figure out, is Malaysian for “chicken”. Ayam Goreng is just fried chicken. They offer a regular and spicy version, and the spicy version is almost orange from the spices. Bubur Ayam is chicken soup, or as they call it on the menu, chicken porridge. It really wasn’t that different from the chicken soup my grandma makes, just a tad bit spicier.

The other thing which I saw back in January was uniquely Chinese: the prosperity burger. I saw it in Hong Kong as well as Bali. It is sort of the Chinese New Year equivalent of the Shamrock Shake. I had it Bali and it was actually pretty good. It had a heavy taste of black pepper and it sort of oblong shaped, like the McRib, but because it’s Malaysia, made of beef.

Like what I saw at McDonald’s Fiji, McDonald’s Malaysia menu reflects the diversity of the country. There are just enough tweaks in the menu to make it uniquely Malaysian.

(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.

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’ve had a jammed packed couple of days here in Singapore. I’m currently at a McDonald’s at the Singapore Harborfront waiting to take the ferry to Bintan Island, Indonesia. Bintan is like a 45 min ferry ride from Singapore and it, along with neighboring Batam island, are cheap, close tourists destinations for people in Singapore. I have no plans to do any sighseeing or anything else while I’m on Bintan. I’m going to hunker down and edit video. I’m staying at a place on the beach which costs like US$13 a night.

Yesterday (Sunday) I went to the Singapore Zoo. I had heard it called one of the best zoos in the world, and I can see why. Like everything else in Singapore, it is top notch. I got about 30 min of video at the zoo and it will be its own podcast episode.

Saturday, I went with Dave and his girlfriend Mingko to Malaysia to visit a tropical fruit farm and eat durian. Durian is a fruit I’ve never heard of before I came to Singapore, but some people here are crazy about it. It isn’t anything like you’d expect from a fruit. It tastes more like a baked vegetable or a pastry. It is really hard to explain. The fruit itself is large with spikes, with a giant seed in the middle. In the wild, it is normally eaten by elephants or tigers who spread the seed. The smell of durian is so strong that you can’t bring it on the subway in Singapore. Some people at the farm at so much durian, they had enormous piles of durian husks on their table.

I’ve also done a fair amount of just walking around the city. Had dinner in Chinatown and at at a real vegetarian restaurant in Little India. (I’m defining “real” as a place where normally only Indians eat, most everyone eats with their fingers, and they have a sink to wash your hands in the dining room). A meal there was SG$2 (US$1.50). I also went inside a function Hindu temple for the first time.

In terms of sheer variety, Singapore is by far the best food city I’ve visited on my trip. There are hawker stands everywhere where you can find any number of varieties of food. (I’ll have a lot more to say on that in a few days in a post of its own).

I visited the Asian Museum of Culture, which is one of the better museums I’ve been to (Singapore….go figure). The museum covers most of Asian culture from SE Asia to the Middle East. (It omits anything from Korea or Japan which I thought odd. I was told later that it might be a matter of difficulty in getting artifacts from those countries.)

Everyone I talk to says Singapore is expensive. Compared to the rest of SE Asia it is, but coming from Australia, it’s like shopping at Wal-Mart.

I also got to talk at length to several native Singaporeans, and their thoughts on the country are interesting to say the least (more on that later as well). Suffice to say that Singapore is a truly unique country. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

I hope to have internet access somehow on Bintan, but we’ll see. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some sort of connection given its proximity to Singapore.

KL Quickie

I’m in the cheap-o airport in Kuala Lumpur waiting for them to start check-in for my flight to Jakarta.

I can tell that I’m in SE Asia. The airport is full of the gap year English backpackers. I last ran into this crowd in Fiji and probably wont have to really deal with them again until I get to Australia.

They’ve had free wifi at most of the Asian airports I’ve been to, which is more than I can say about American airports (except for Las Vegas, where they put the internet in the airport, but not in your hotel room).

I also came down with a helluva runny nose on the flight from Kota Kinabalu. It is still dripping like a fawcet.

Technically I you need a flight out of Indonesia before you enter. I’m going to leave via the border with East Timor, so I hope it isn’t an issue.

*EDIT* For the first time on my trip, I’ve encountered a 15kg weight limit for check on bags. The flight from KK had a 20kg limit, like every other flight I’ve had. So I take my tripod and boots out attack them to my carry on and suddenly I’m good. Net change in weight on the airplane: zero.

The exchange rate for the Indonesian Rupiah is about one dollar for every 10,000 rupiah.

Bye Bye Borneo

Tomorrow I’m off to Jakarta. I hope to be in Indonesia for two weeks going through Java, Bali, and then a few days in East Timor.

I came to Borneo not really knowing anything about the island. Next to nothing about the political divisions on the island, the history, the people, and very little about the natural features of the island.

Most of the people I meet on the road are usually on vacation. They are usually traveling for 2-3 weeks have put a lot of thought into their itinerary. They’ve surfed the web, purchased the guidebooks, and know down to the day exactly what they are going to be doing and where they will be. This is usually their “big” trip and so they take it seriously.

I, however, don’t travel that way. I really can’t. When I came to Borneo I knew there were three countries on the island, two World Heritage sites, and that was about it. So when I go to a new place, it is really a learning experience. What can I say I know about Indonesia? I know a fair amount of their post WWII history, I know vaguely about their colonization by the Dutch, I know in a general sense of the big things I want to visit while I’m there and I know that the most popular tourist destination by a wide margin in Bali.

I don’t use guidebooks. I have used one guidebook since I’ve started my trip, and that was Moon’s South Pacific Handbook. I purchased that back in the US and carried that around for the first several months of my trip. It was heavy, it was expensive, and the information was often out of date. (especially flight information). Given the cost of guidebook and their weight, I just decided not to buy them anymore. I’ve done fine without them. You can get all the information you need online, and all the travel tips and knowledge you need you can get from local tourism groups and other travelers. Once you get the skill of traveling down (and it is a skill), guidebooks are superfluous.

I also don’t like Lonely Planet.

The flip side to not knowing much when you arrive somewhere is leaving somewhere wanting to do more. Almost every country I’ve been to I’ve left with a list of things I’d like to do if I ever returned. Example:

  • Japan: Visit Hokkido, see a Japanese baseball game, visit Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
  • Marshall Islands: Visit Bikini
  • Micronesia: Dive in Chuuk lagoon and visit Yap
  • Vanuatu: visit Tanna Island and visit the John Frum cults and watch mount erupt.
  • South Korea: almost everything I didn’t get to do because of weather
  • Palau: dive more, sea kayak
  • Hawaii: visit the islands I haven’t been to
  • Philippines: visit islands that are not Luzon

You get the idea. (The only places I don’t have a list of things undone is Guam and Samoa, and even then I’d go back to Samoa to visit Tokelau and just because it is a nice place)

The biggest list of things left undone, by far, is going to be in Borneo.

I was really blown away by Borneo. The amount of ….stuff… here is amazing. There are quotes on many of the tourism banners here citing Borneo as the “World’s Greatest Tourist Attraction”. I’m not in a position judge if that is right or wrong, but Borneo would certainly be on the list.

I did not see any orangutans. I did not see any probiscus monkeys. I did not see any hornbills.
I did not see any wild pitcher plants. I did not get to see a blooming rafflesia. Most orchids were not in bloom. I only saw giant insects in a museum (save for a moth I saw last night that was the size of a small bird). I didn’t get to Kuching. I didn’t get to Kalamantan…..which makes up most of Borneo. I didn’t get to climb Mt. Kinabalu.

What the hell did I do, you ask? Quite a lot actually. Explored caves, climbed in the rainforest canopy, bathed in hot springs, saw a million bats go out for a night of hunting. It isn’t as if I was doing nothing.

Looking at the map, I’m sure I’ll end up saying the same thing about Indonesia.

Borneo does get a fair amount of tourism, but nothing like other places. It is still sort of secret. If you want to see the rainforest, most people would go to Costa Rica or Brazil. If you want megafauna, you go to Africa.

The tourism industry here is pretty well developed. Mulu and Kinabalu are very well run and professional national parks. The facilities were good and staff seemed to know their stuff. The infrastructure I found in Malaysia was surprisingly good. Communication was not a problem and for the most part, things are cheap. My room in Kota Kinabalu was US$17.25 a night for a single. I could have had a dorm for about $6.50 a night. The BBQ place just outside as great grilled squid for about $1.

I hope that I can one day return to Borneo.

Still in Kota Kinabalu

I was supposed to go to the park today, but the guide I was going to go with canceled on me. I’ll be here another day I guess.

I have made good use of my time in KK.

I’m working on a really interesting project for when I’m in Jakarta. It is something I can really only do when I’m in Jakarta so I hope I can pull it off. I will probably need the help of someone local and I’m currently working on that.

I think I’m ready to hit Indonesia and start moving on.

I’m going to spend my extra day going to the beach I think and testing out web video platforms.