I usually like to do a wrap-up post at the end of each country just to summarize the place. But I’m not sure that’s necessary for here. I wrote a post during our first couple days here listing all the things that made me like this country so much. My KL post hopefully expressed that its one of my favorite cities in the whole world. Diving was amazing and I think you all know I like it now, especially our trip to Sipadan. KK was great. I even wrote a food post for Malaysia, because Malaysian cuisine is truly extraordinary. Everything I love about Malaysia was summed up in my first impressions post: the food, the people, the diversity, the culture, the easy-going atmosphere. Malaysia’s been a great country and definitely one that we’ll want to revisit in later in life.
thanks for the free wifi, little shop on the corner with the graffiti
Melaka is an old, historically important seaport slowly giving way to the new: large shopping complexes, air-conditioned theaters, Carrefour and Starbucks.
The old gives way to the new.
So anyways, since I see that Matt has typed up a nice little history of the place, I will focus on my three favorites: browsing Chinatown, seeing a movie, and cendol.
1.) Browsing Chinatown. Unfortunately, browsing was all I could do. But what I really wanted was to buy a couple paintings from the City Art Gallery (just over the bridge into Chinatown). There was a really great watercolor of food stalls at a night market, as well as others with scenes from local life. Sadly, I don’t have the cash to spare for a painting of that caliber, much less to ship it home. After parting with the paintings, we popped into a fun little antique store, which may or may not have been selling actual antiques, but nonetheless the selection was really fun and ranged from colorful tea sets to Buddha statues to brush paintings and everything in between. I settled for a couple postcard replications of Chinese calendar adverts, since I have no desire to cart around a tea set for the next four months, no matter how pretty it looks. Outside of the shop, on a mellow backstreet, I enjoyed another form of pottery—tiles. They made for a cheery addition to the rows of old houses.
2.) Seeing a movie. 27 Dresses. So the ending was pretty cheesy, but overall I liked it, and a chick flick in a proper theater was a nice change from watching movies like Die Hard during long bus rides.
3.) Cendol. Iced desserts in general are just lovely and refreshing. For anyone who’s ever had a popsicle on a hot day, this needs no explanation except that cendol and other iced desserts are 10 times better.
Our last few days in Malaysia have been spent here, in Melaka. After two weeks of continuous travel, we decided to just relax here for a few days. It’s a good place to unwind too- its small mellow town, but with enough history to keep it interesting. Our bus ride into town told us a lot right off the bat. We drove south into town, through Little India, then through Chinatown, and finally dropped off in front of The Stadthuys- a Dutch cathedral, surrounded by British colonial buildings and a fountain dedicated to Queen Victoria. Like much of Malaysia, it’s an incredibly diverse place with perhaps the richest history in all of Malaysia.
Although small today, Melaka was once the center of a large trade empire and its importance drove many historical events. It first came into the European consciousness when Vasco de Gama reached India, in 1498, and discovered that the spices Europe was after didn’t come from India at all, but from even farther east, from a place called Melaka. You see, prior to de Gama’s voyage, Europeans got their spices from Arab traders, who got them from Indians, who got them from ports in present-day Malaysia, with Melaka being the largest. De Gama’s voyage was necessitated by the fact that Arabs controlled the trade route between India and Europe. But once de Gama found a “direct” route to India, this all changed. Attempting to by-pass the Arabs and Indians, the Portuguese set out to trade directly with Melaka. In typical colonial style, they took Goa is 1510 and attacked Melaka in 1511 and held it (although under constant attack and rebellion) for 130 years. The Reformation changed all this, as the Dutch declared themselves Protestants. Besides all the excommunicating that the Pope must have done, he also banned the Dutch from anchoring at the important port of Lisbon. Well, the Dutch said “to hell with Lisbon, we’ll go all the way to Melaka ourselves.” So in 1640, the Dutch East India Company teamed up with the Johor ascendancy (the monarchy that had been thrown out by the Portuguese) and lay siege to Melaka. It took five months, but by 1641 they had Melaka. They ran the city and port for another 150 years, until political and military circumstances forced them to hand it over to the British East India Company (which was actually a trade for parts of British-held Indonesia). Dutch circumstances, of course, never improved and neither did Melaka’s. The British established Singapore as their major port in the region, followed by Penang, and lastly Melaka. It was a long, slow death for a prominent port that once drove the spice trade. Another interesting sidenote that I learned at the museum: I forgot the name of the fellow, but a Malay Melakan was taken prisoner by the Portuguese to be sold as a slave in Goa. Along the way, he befriended Magellan, who bought his freedom and took him back to Portugal and then west on his famous circumnavigation of the globe. The story comes full circle as the man met Malay-speaking peoples in the southern Philippines, who confirmed that Melaka was west and thus confirming that the earth was round. Magellan didn’t get to enjoy the discovery too long as he was soon executed because he slept (or raped) a chief’s daughter in the southern Philippines. Melaka still sees a lot of maritime action though, as it overlooks the famous Straits of Malacca, one of the most pirated regions of the world. Oil tankers are frequent targets of Indonesian pirates who after the captains’ safes, which usually only hold around 50,000 USD. I guess we’re getting a tour of modern piracy, as the South China Sea, especially the Sulu Sea off Sipadan, is the most heavily pirated region of the world. Luckily, the Malaysian side has a strong military presence. Anyways, back to Melaka…
The legacy of the British is evident everywhere in Melaka. The great British Empire brought people from all over the world to Melaka. Although there were already traders from everywhere between Arabia and China in Melaka, the stability that came with British rule encouraged many more pilgrims, notably Indians and Chinese. The Chinese took over the Dutch parts of town, converting the Dutch-style homes and mansions into shophouses. This is why Melaka’s Chinatown is one of the most distinct and unique I have ever seen. The Chinese, Indians, and Europeans married into Malaysian families to a large extent, which is why Melaka is the center of these distinct mixed-race communities and cultures. Chinese-Malay men are called Babas, women Nyonya, Malay-Indians are called Chetties, and I forgot what Euro-Malays were called. Each of these cultures has a distinct cuisine too, the most available in Melaka being baba-nyonya cuisine. Besides the people and food, the British architecture is still pretty prevalent. Several cathedrals can be found around town, while the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral overlook the city and ocean from a hilltop. In front of the roofless walls is a statue of the Catholic Saint Francis Xavier. If you’re a long-time reader, you may recall that we saw his body in Goa. For new readers, here’s the story: He died somewhere in South East Asia and his body was sent to Melaka for burial. Apparently his body did not decay in the nine months that he was being transported to Melaka. Several years later, in order to canonize him, the Vatican demanded his body excavated and ordered his right arm severed and sent to Rome for verification. Apparently his arm dripped blood when it was cut off. The arm went to Rome and for some reason (that I cannot remember) the rest of the body was sent to Goa, where it rests now (and is put on full display once every 10 years). Back to modern day Melaka, the funny thing about the statue is that it only has one arm.
these guys didn’t hit the bulls-eye everytime, but they did hit the color on the target they wanted to almost every time…scary! (part of Melaka’s cultural week festivities or something)
You can probably tell by now that we did a fair amount of sightseeing. We checked out a few museums (but skipped even more, like the philatelic museum, baba-nonya heritage museum, and Museum of Ethnography to name a few). But we did accomplish our goal of slowing down our pace a bit and relaxing for a few days. We saw 27 Dresses, which even I thought had its funny moments. We strolled through Chinatown a few times, as Joylani combed the antique and curio stores for interesting things, along with a couple excursions into Little India for some food. Melaka has been a good place to soak up our last days in Malaysia.
Once again we have a room with no window. It’s always strange waking up without the morning light. I need that reference. Adding to the strangeness is that our ac unit sounds more like a swamp cooler with water running down the back (though I think it must be ac since its not really humid in our room at all) which pleasantly sounds like rain on a window. Only we have no window.
The market here is amazing; it one of both of our favorites we’ve seen. There are numerous kinds of interesting fruit and veggies, sea plants and a great seafood section (made all the more interesting after our recent Sipidan trip). Spotted rays, squid, octopus, yellow fin tuna, parrot fish, and a few other things we saw under water, but have never seen in a market before.
The food stall section is equally wonderful—murtabak (peanut-filled pancake), cendol, and BBQ chicken and fish. I don’t know what else to do here besides eat and pass through, but we had a good time doing both. Well, maybe just eating. Picture below: waiting for the rain to lighten up so we can cross the street and find a hotel.
I’m not really the food connoisseur that Joylani is, but I feel that the food in Malaysia is good enough to warrant a post even from me. I can confidently say that it’s the best food all trip. But first, lets review. European food was pretty bland and unexciting. Besides being pretty familiar to my American palate, its also cost-prohibitive. There were aspects that I enjoyed though. Who can argue with having a glass of red with every meal, in Italy and Greece. And I ate about 5 kebaps a day in Turkey. Indian food was generally pretty good. Good flavors and spices, cheap enough we could order whatever we wanted whenever, although we were also continually sick for a few months there. Everyone in Nepal eats dal bhat for every meal and while its okay sometimes and the ingredients vary a little from place to place, how can you get excited about the same dish at every meal? Thailand was a wonderful change after Nepal. Thai food isn’t my favorite, but there’s always something good available. I can stand eating pad thai, noodle soup, and barbequed meat at every meal. Plus, two 7-Elevens on every block helped quench our thirst and snacking needs. Lao pho is the best meal I’ve had all trip. When possible I always had some beef pho, sometimes 3-4 times a day. The baguettes were okay too. Not too many dishes, but my favorite dish so far. Cambodian food was okay. Not the most sanitary stuff, but there were a handful of dishes that were okay. Now, Malaysian food. Like Thailand, good food is always available. But your average dishes here are not just good, they’re great (like Frosted Flakes). Chicken or beef satay with peanut sauce beats pad thai any day. And a roti canai with a hot cup of teh tariq is equivalent to my favorite meal in India: Keralan parota and chai. Plus, there’s always Chinese pork buns or red/black bean buns to snack on. And the shaved ice deserts cendol and ABC are musts every post-meal. The only food I don’t really like is the Chinese food. I’ve realized on this trip that I don’t really like Chinese food, I like American Chinese food. Broccoli beef, various types of fried chicken meat, and other stir-fried dishes. But judging by Lao, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia, Chinese food usually consists of rice or oily noodles with chicken or pig entrails- chicken gizzards and nasty pig parts are favorites here, although pig faces and unmentionable cow parts are favorites in mainland SEA. It seems to me, that Chinese food is basically prepared by chopping up an animal and throwing some random parts on a pile of rice. Hopefully, I’ll like the Chinese food in China better than SEA. While I’m on the subject, I’ll get all my gross food aversions out. Lao and Cambodia’s fertilized eggs were pretty grosso. Carts full of fried insects, spiders, and larvae all over the place in Thailand weren’t too appealing. Goat heads and buffalo hooves for sale at the butcher shops in Kathmandu weren’t too appetizing either. So I guess Chinese restaurants in Malaysia aren’t too bad, relatively speaking.
Yesterday we arrived in Brunei Darassalam. People who have heard of it know it simply as Brunei. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small sultanate of just over 300,000 people on the north coast of Borneo. Most of the population is Malay, with Chinese and Indian making up the balance. Malay is the official language, although people are fluent in English as well. Islam is the official religion, although all are tolerated. We stayed in the only city of any size, the capitol Bandar Seri Begawan. There’s not much to see, hence the single post on our short day and a half here. Despite its size, I thought it was interesting purely for its uniqueness. It also happens to be our twentieth country on this trip.
Yesterday afternoon was taken up with trying to find a place to stay and just exploring the tiny town. One of the first things we noticed is that Brunei is definitely first world. When we got to Thailand, we thought that was first world, but that was coming from South Asia. Then Malaysia was another step up, but even it is not classified as first world. Well, Brunei is and its readily apparent. The downside for us is that there’s not really any budget accommodation. Like any first world place, the only budget accommodation was a hostel. So we checked in to the Pusat Belia Youth Hostel, the only one in the small country. Being a strictly Muslim country, there were separate halls for men and women, so Joylani and I had to split for the two nights. On a similar note, the only thing the customs agent asked me when we entered the country was if I was carrying any alcohol. Although I was permitted to bring in a certain volume for personal consumption, it’s illegal to sell inside Brunei. I didn’t have any alcohol or any other controlled drugs; failure to declare controlled drugs or smuggling illegal substances carries a mandatory death sentence. On a lighter note, we met quite a few nice, older travelers at the hostel, rather than your typical backpacker hostellers. We walked around town looking for dinner, which we eventually found at a 24×7 South Indian restaurant. First impressions of Bandar was that it was really small. Modern with some nice buildings, but only a couple blocks square. The cars were mostly luxury imports and they always stopped, regardless of whether there was a green light, red light, or even a cross walk. Either they were very courteous or there’s a strict penalty for failing to stop if someone looks like they might cross the street.
Brunei is a nicely manicured place
Our first stop this morning was at the Brunei Museum. It had a range of diverse galleries, which gave us a good sense of the place: Natural History and Ecology, National History, Art, Culture, Oil and Gas, and new gallery showcasing artifacts from a recently discovered shipwreck. Ironically, there was also a traveling photo exhibit focused on Native Americans. I’ll share a little historical background of the place. The Sultanate has been around since the 14th century and it eventually expanded to control most of Borneo in addition to parts of modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Most importantly it was the gateway to the famous Spice Islands (known as The Moluccas is modern-day Indonesia), who’s spices drove the entire trade between Europe, India, and China. (To break it down for the non-history majors out there, Europeans traded European goods to India for textiles and China for hard-goods, which in-turn they traded to South East Asia for spices which commanded astronomical prices in Europe. To tie this in to American history, it was the allure of this profit that drove a certain Italian named Christoforo Colombo sail west. Back to Europeans, they had to do it this way because there was no demand for European goods in SEA and Indian and Chinese goods were already being supplied to Europe). But Brunei’s strategic position on the trade routes made it a target of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch aggression though. Brunei did reach an understanding the British, although the Brits used security as an excuse to take control of large swaths of Brunei (these areas later fell into American hands, before being incorporated into the Malaysian Federation, as the states of Sarawak and Sabah). Oil began to be discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which brought a lot of British investment, most notably from the British firm Shell. Despite having profits siphoned by British Imperialism, oil began to make Brunei wealthy. Drilling was halted during the Japanese offensive and subsequent occupation, but was up and running soon after their 1945 surrender. Brunei declined to join Malaysia in 1957, in order to protect both its wealth and the sultan’s power. Instead, it remained a British territory, which gave it a certain level of autonomy, while Britain handled its security and foreign affairs. On New Years of 1984, it finally did declare its independence.
Since then, the Sultan has held the dual roles of PM and Commander-in-Chief, while his family fills other ministerial positions. In fact, half of the country is employed by the state/monarchy. The sultan was the richest man in the world at certain points during the nineteen seventies and eighties too. You would think that people would be unhappy living in an autocratic state where the head of state enriches himself with the nation’s natural resources. In fact, the opposite is true, as oil has enriched most Bruneians as well- oil wealth subsidizes everything from houses to haj trips. There’s no income taxes and gasoline is cheaper than water. People are definitely well off in Brunei. The capitol is immaculately kept. Trash cans are easy to find, so there’s no litter. Nice cars roll around on the perfect roads. Stops lights everywhere- it’s a very orderly place. Like Malaysia, the food is excellent- a mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese. Most notably, the beef rendang and the black bean beef I had for lunch and dinner respectively were some of the best beef I’ve had all trip. This isn’t surprising though, as I read that all the beef in Brunei is imported from a ranch that the Sultanate owns in Australia. In fact, the beef ranch is actually bigger than Brunei itself!
haven’t seen anything that looks this developed in awhile…
After the Brunei Museum, we visited the incredibly dull Malay Technology Museum. It definitely wasn’t worth the visit, considering the 20 mosquito bites I got going down the eight million stairs from the Brunei Museum to the Technology museum. We also visited the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which was absolutely beautiful. It was built in 1958 and is currently under some renovations, but we were allowed in for a peak. It was unbelievable and very different from most other mosques we’ve visited. No photos allowed, but the interior walls and floor were made of Italian marble. The higher walls and arches were all white with gold accents. The outside was also white with a gold dome and gold-accented minarets. We also went to see the Royal Regalia Museum, but it was closed for the afternoon because the King of Cambodia was visiting it. I think its kind of funny how the world’s monarchs visit each other and keep in touch. Somewhere in Thailand, I saw a poster of dozens of kings and queens gathered for a portrait around the King of Thailand- Europeans, Arabs, Africans, Asians, everything. And one day on the cover of the Bangkok post was a photo and story about the Queen of Spain who was visiting Thailand to express her condolences n regards to the late princess’s death. Its like a little club or something. Anyways, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and eating, while we just hung out in the hostels common area in the evening chatting with other travelers.
Like I said, not much to see or write about. Although we probably won’t visit again, it was an interesting place. Just a little country of less than half a million that enjoys the highest standard of living in SEA. And its use of its oil revenues stands in stark contrast to the current populist and economically-disastrous policies of some oil-rich South American countries. One thought I did have is that perhaps Brunei is only interesting because we haven’t seen a first world nation in so long. The photos I took in Brunei show roads, stoplights, and buildings. I noticed this when comparing the things my Dad and I took pictures of in Thailand. He took photos of things that looked crazy to him, but have become commonplace to me. I doubt many first world readers will find my Brunei photos interesting. After a few months at home, maybe I won’t either. Despite these rambling thoughts, I was happy with our visit to Brunei. It was small and our time was short, but we saw almost everything and it was unique and interesting.
You probably can’t tell from this picture, but this mosque is covered in sea “peebles.” That’s right, sea pebbles. According to the caretaker, sea peebles are difficult to get these days because the place where they come from has put a curb on exports. But Brunei is trying to secure a load of sea peebles to refinish the outside of the mosque during the current renovation process. At least that’s what the caretaker told us. It is a beautiful mosque, with very clean and simple lines. And, I must say, that up close the sea peeble exterior is far more beautiful than ordinary paint. In addition to the mosque, the only other thing that we went to go see that we somewhat enjoyed was the Brunei Museum. Highlights were all on the first floor where there’s a little wing of Islamic art, an oil gallery (which would have been informative if I had had the patience to read through everything), and a natural history section. This part consisted of exhibits on different types of wildlife in Brunei. There were a lot of taxidermied specimens including a proboscis monkey and mouse deer (it’s a really small deer, rat-sized, but still with hooves and deerish features) which were interesting to see, especially since we didn’t do any trekking in Borneo. Many of the animals that have been collected have been killed in traffic and brought in by locals for preservation and study. So there was a section about this, but I found having a road kill section was a bit strange. It reminded me of the Red Asphalt video they make you watch in drivers education. More surprising than the road kill section, however, was a temporary exhibit of photos by Edward Curtis. He spent many years doing ethnographic work with various Native American tribes, including taking some beautiful photographs. After having a string a bad luck in terms of timing and visiting museums/exhibits that have been closed or moved, it was fun to catch this one during the beginning of its two-week showing in Brunei. It’s been in the news both on the radio and in the paper, the later of which the US Ambassador was quoted as saying something about the “shadows” that had tragically disappeared into the sunset. I thought that was quite euphemistic of him.
joylani 130pxMy good friend Desi asked me how we were going to spend Easter. Seeing that we had a flight that day, I guessed we’d spend it in an airport and probably eat rice. Well, sure enough…after sleeping with the lights on the night before (due to a roach problem in our hotel) we arrived at the airport on Easter morning 2 hours before our flight was to leave, only to find that it was delayed 4 hours. As a consolation, they offered all passengers a lunch voucher. After sitting around for a couple hours and listening through a couple of new albums my brother sent me, Matt and I decided to check out the situation at the cafeteria. I walked up to the counter and checked my name off the passenger list. They handed me a bowl of rice and a piece of chicken that had been cooked (from the look of it) a long time ago. Seeing that there was nothing else that I even wanted to buy from the lunch counter, I walked back to our table and ate just the rice in solace—at least I had expected this to happen. After all, I knew I wasn’t going to be eating my grandma’s scalloped potatoes, jello salad, and a spiral cut ham today. And rice is always good.*
The only good thing from Tawau: ABC (iced dessert with goodies at the bottom and drenched in rose-flavored syrup).
*Well, except for the one place where we were considering getting our wedding catered from until they gave us food to sample and the rice wasn’t even cooked all the way.
joylani 130pxSo while Matt went diving the last couple of days, I tagged along with the boat and snorkeled nearby. This was the first time I’ve ever snorkeled by myself and even though I missed having a buddy to point things out to, I really enjoyed the solitary experience. Unlike the divers who had to share their dive space with the 3-4 others in their groups, I had the surface to myself. Serenely floating, I took my time as I hovered above amazing fields of corals in colors and quantities I’d never seen before. The corals had a strange glow about them, not like obnoxious neon lights, though somehow similar, only magical. Soft corals with pastel bases and brighter yellow tips also came in hues of green, purple, and orange. I can’t even remember exactly how it was except that it looked absolutely stunning with the sunlight shining through the water and illuminating the expanse of coral beneath me. It was much different from my experience snorkeling in the Maldives where the actual reef isn’t in great condition but there is still a lot of other plants and marine life to look at. Of course, Sipidan wasn’t without animals. I spied on several turtles coming up for air, chased the path of a reef shark, and spotted my first octopus. The fish ranged in size from a lone barracuda almost as long as myself to a small group of tiny silver fish that looked like beads of mercury darting around the boat.
I won’t compare my experience to diving because the two ways of seeing things are just that—two ways, and different. But, to my relief, I didn’t miss out on everything and I still got to enjoy the same amazing visibility as the divers, in addition to seeing some of the same “big guys,” like the school of bumphead parrot fish. And all the while I enjoyed the solitude of being the lone snorkeler, out of the way of other peoples’ bubbles.
Today I dived off Pulau Sipadan, one of the top dive sites in the world. Each dive was along the reef wall, which drops off over 600 meters from the small atoll’s surface. Needless to say, it was absolutely spectacular. The weather was much better than yesterday and consequently, the visibility was unbelievable. And while we focused on small things yesterday, like nudibranches, coral, and other bottom-dwellers, today was all about the big. Each of todays three dives was filled with dozens of turtles, several sharks, huge barracudas, large schools of fish, and so on. All against the backdrop of a living 600 meter wall.
swimming in the midst of a huge school of bumphead parrotfish, each at least a meter long!
On the way back from our dives, I reflected a little bit on what diving means to me. At first, I was more excited about the activity and all the cools things about “flying” underwater. But that wore off pretty quickly, as diving for its own sake wouldn’t be very fun. Swimming underwater is a little fun, but nothing compared to seeing and experiencing the sea life down there. Thus, I see diving as a vehicle to see and explore. It opens up a whole new world to me that didn’t exist before. Snorkeling kind of introduced me to that world, but diving is the way to really explore it. The ability to dive now gives us a chance to further explore the places we visit and opens up a multitude of new places to visit.