Mabul and Kapalai

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164_6445-4.JPGWe arrived in Semporna, in Malaysian Borneo, last night and were out diving in the Celebes Sea today. Well, I was diving. Joylani is having an ear problem, which is an automatic no-go as far as diving is concerned. So while I was below, she checked out things from the surface above. Today were deepest dives I’ve done yet (around 25 meters), so I was pretty stoked. The weather above the surface was pretty rough, but it didn’t hamper us too much. Firstly, because rain doesn’t bother you when 25 meters below and we were muck-diving today. Muck-dives are generally focused on smaller aquatic life near the sea floor. The last two dives were muck dives, one below an oil-rig-turned-hotel and the other along an atoll’s reef. Our first dive was pretty cool too, as we saw a bunch of wrecks.

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baracuda shoal

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blue-spotted rock ray

Kuala Lumpur

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164_6445-4.JPGKuala Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, is easily one of my favorite cities. It’s hard to sum up in words, but I’ll try. It’s a progressive city, but it retains many aspects of its heritage. Its a modern city, but food stalls selling everything from delicious satay to tasty desserts can be found on corners and alleys around town. Its in the latter stages of development, but the city doesn’t have the pollution and cubic concrete architecture of other developing cities of similar size, like Bangkok or Bombay. Rather, modern Islamic design inspires the artistic and creative designs of the city. Joylani likes it because the city’s artistic patronage is evident in everything from its buildings to its gardens.

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the aquarium 

I enjoy it because it’s a diverse place moving in a positive direction. For the first time since Switzerland, we’re in a truly international country- that is, a non-homogenous population. Chinese and Indians are everywhere, although they also have geographic enclaves within the city- Chinatown and Little India. Its great; where else can I get an Indian shave and haircut,  then chow down on some satay with chai? Or was that rotis (here, rotis are the same as Keralan parotas- mmmm, so good) with pearl milk tea? Either way, the fusion of three cultures produces an excellent mix of food and social dynamics. Its kind of like Fremont, in that all the groups of youngsters are combinations of Indians and Asians. Aside from diversity, which I place a high value on, I like the atmosphere of KL. It’s not a trendy place like Paris or Bangkok, where shopping and weird clothese seem to be the norm. People dress normal, which to me means like home. Jeans and t-shirts, suits, polos and khakis. Not third-world quality and not obnoxiously “fashionable” either. Just normal.

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Jalan Sultan, the street our hotel is on and a major night market area 

 It seems that the focus in KL is on commerce. People are building their businesses and focusing on opportunity. Every interview I’ve read with the PM recently has talked about building investor confidence and attracting commerce. As part of its “Vision 2020” (Malaysia has a goal to be officially classified as first world by 2020), KL is being groomed as a business center. The “multimedia supercorridor” is being constructed, with new towns like Cyber Jaya popping up. Another town is being built as the first “paperless” city. Which brings me to my last point: Malaysia is not developing at the expense the environment or certain parts of the population. Building is undertaken with environmental awareness and city signs indicate 500 ringit fines for littering (150 USD)! I’ve also read quite a bit already about how all Malaysians should get to contribute and benefit from Malaysia’s development. People are concerned about health and social issues, not just money. Malaysians seem to understand that a nation is made up of the sum of its populace and the diffusion of responsibility regarding social ills (that we’ve seen in every other country) is oddly absent here. Malaysians are concerned about their country, work for it, and are proud of it. It’s awesome to see a place developing responsibly, unlike the so many developed countries in the past and nearly every developing country today.

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Petronas Towes, the tallest twin towers in the world and incredibly cool looking

To sum it up, KL’s got good food, cool people and vibrant atmosphere, its modern, visually appealing, and its on its way globally speaking.

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the water fountains and park at KL City Center, where we hung out a few nights

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Merdeka Square, where Malaysian Independence was declared and a good example of a the mix between park area, colonial, and modern buildings that compose beautiful KL

KL is still great

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joylani 130pxBut I got some bad news from a doctor today about not being able to go diving for a week due to some ear problems I’m having. I almost started to cry in his office. We have dives scheduled on the 20th and 21st, but now I will have to snorkel instead. My visit to the doctor was just one of three personal maintenance stops I’ve had in KL (saw a dentist and got new glasses too). That combined with all the diving confirms that Malaysia will be our most expensive country so far. Oh well, at least we really like it here! We’ve found most Malaysians to be very friendly and helpful. It has been somewhat common for strangers to ask us where we’re going with the intention of helping us get there (as opposed to hoping to take us somewhere to get a comission) before we even ask for help. Many people speak great English which is additionally helpful. As for KL, there is an easy to use network of public transportation within the city adding to the traveler-friendliness of the country. We visited the Petronas towers on our first day here, and have gone back to the area each day.

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 view from the SkyBridge of Petronas Towers

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park in KLCC, including free public waterpark!

In addition to the beautiful towers, there’s an adjacent shopping center that could be somewhere in San Jose based on the stores (Banana Republic, Gap, Coffee Bean, Starbucks, Chilis…and most surprisingly a California Pizza Kitchen) and the ethnic makeup of shoppers (lots of Chinese and Indians). We like it there for the cool AC, a nice park and fountain outside, and this great Borderesque bookstore with a huge selection of books. There are tons of designer shops, electronics stores, home décor, even a grocery store with fresh sushi in the deli. The various food courts are pretty nice too. In addition to all that, there’s a discovery museum, theatre, and art gallery ensuring that as long as you visit the Petronas area, there will be something to do. So I guess that explains why we went to hang out there three days in a row… Besides visiting Petronas, we did manage to see a few sights. I especially enjoyed visiting the hibiscus and orchid gardens within the larger botanical garden. Orchids never cease to amaze me with their structured yet playful shapes, striking colors, and range of sizes. Here are a few of my favorites:

Kuala Lumpur Botanic Gardens

 

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Kuala Lumpur Botanic Gardens (9)

 

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Kuala Lumpur Botanic Gardens (5)

 

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Other pics can be found in the new Flowers Album, which will be posted soon…

KL is Great!

joylani 130pxWe got into KL early this evening, so all we really had time to do after finding a hotel was eat.  But that was good enough for me.  I got two of the things I’ve been wanting and expecting to eat since arriving in Malaysia but haven’t actually had: satay and a shaved ice dessert (cendol tonight).

Joylani’s Birthday

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164_6445-4.JPGLike most holidays on this trip, Joylani’s birthday was pretty mellow. She did receive a bunch of cards and a couple gifts a couple weeks ago, which my parents delivered from family at home. But today, she spent the morning finishing up her PADI Open Water course and then I joined her for a couple of shore dives in the afternoon. It was fun to dive together for the first time and we saw a lot of soft corals, which I haven’t really seen before. We also spotted a nudibranch, which is like a small colorful slug. There are over  three thousand different kinds, of differing shape and colors. Anyways, afterwards we headed to beach bar for a couple of drinks while we watched the sun slip into the sea. Then it was on to an oceanside dinner of BBQ’d seafood, before heading to bed. Being abroad, holidays and birthdays are always a bit anti-climatic, but Joylani said she had a good day. Just a mellow birthday on a mellow tropical island.

Something I never wanted to do

 

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I pass by this little pond at least four times a day coming and going to the dive shop, as well as loads of monkeys in the mornings.  They filmed part of the film South Pacific on this island.

joylani 130pxI never really wanted to go diving before.  I like snorkeling, but the thought of being deep under water, relying on a tank of air has never been too appealing to me.  It still isn’t.  But today I just finished my open water PADI dive course, making me a certified diver.  Even though I still don’t like many of the physical aspects of being underwater (changes in pressure, clearing ears, being reliant on compressed air, and it can get a bit cold), what I do like is the view.  As usual, the credit goes to Matt for convincing me to go to new heights, er depths.  He convinced me that diving is far superior to snorkeling.  I can’t say that I’ve really experienced the “superiority factor” with diving yet, but it is pretty cool to be able to go up to things that I normally wouldn’t while snorkeling.  Surfacing after the dive is really awesome too.  I didn’t realize how much light gets filtered out by the water until during the ascent; swimming upwards, I tilted my head back and watched as the deep blue ceiling above me became brighter and brighter until I saw the clearness of the surface and broke through.

 

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One of my highlights from my first dive was this little guy, a nudibranch.  Magnificent Chromodoris to be exact.  The other highlight was getting to dive with Matt on my last two dives, AND successfully completing my mask removal drill…:)

Pulau Tioman

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164_6445-4.JPGSo Joylani’s been doing her PADI Open Water course, which leaves me with not a whole lot to do. Our first day on Pulau Tioman, I walked about 2 miles south to Tekek, the largest town on the island. It did have a road, which is more than the paved path where we’re staying in Air Batang. It also had a couple stores and an airstrip, which can serve the daily 12-passenger planes that fly from the Peninsula.

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beach outside out hotel

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some of the orange honey coconuts found around the island

So for the duration of yesterday and today, I’ve just chilled out. Mostly read my GMAT book and practice math, which may sound wearisome. But studying on our balcony, steps away from the beach is more relaxing than most other places I can think of studying. Watching the monkeys and monitor lizards provide some entertainment when I need a break, as does a walk a few meters to the beach where I can cool off in the water. This afternoon, I was laying in hammock at the beach thinking about how great this time is.

The Don of the Bus

joylani 130pxIt is post election (many people travel to their home district to vote) as well as the middle of a big school break, and buses to our next destination are booked.  We were afraid we would have to wait a couple days or else take a longer route to try to get to Pulau Tioman, but fortunately ended up checking at the right travel agent to purchase a ticket.  It looks like any other Chinese shop/travel agent with a counter overflowing with candies, dried fruits, and cigarettes and a sign listing various bus routes hanging overhead.  Yesterday, the lady said she had only one seat left on the bus for tonight, but that she would see what she could do to get us another seat.  Not quite sure how that would happen, we decided to wait and see as this was our only option to leave tonight on a direct route to our next destination.  We checked back at the shop this morning, and sure enough she had gotten us two seats on tonight’s overnight bus.  She told us to come back at 9 to go to the bus station.  After another afternoon of killing time before our bus departed this evening, we picked up the bags from our guesthouse and walked to the shop around 9pm to catch a ride to the bus station, or so we thought.  “My Friend,” as Matt called the Chinese lady, walked with us out to the street and pointed to a corner and told us to wait.  We thought maybe she was pulling her car around, or possibly sending us to the station in a cab, as we watched her walk across the street to a taxi station.  She disappeared from our sight and we worried about getting to the station in time to catch our bus.  Finally, we saw “My Friend” again talking to a group of people across the street, and then another person here and there.  She started passing out tickets to a bunch of guys, Thai fishermen who had just returned from a quick trip across the border to renew their Malaysian visa.  She spoke with some other travelers and directed them to wait at the corner with us.  It became apparent that this woman was no ordinary travel agent hawking bus tickets.  Perhaps, we mused, she owns the bus?  Maybe this was how she was able to arrange an extra seat for us?  We enjoyed a quick chat with her about Malaysia and its various destinations as well as listened to her tell us about how she liked the shopping and cheap food in Hong Kong.  “My Friend” warned us like a good aunty to be careful in KL because it is a big city with crime…but seeing as I’ve worked in two cities myself, one particularly crime ridden, we weren’t too concerned by her warnings.  (Many people we’ve met in various countries living in smaller towns don’t usually like their respective country’s large [inevitably crime ridden”] capital city.)  The bus pulled up and our suspicions were confirmed when she stepped on board and began collecting tickets.  It’s not every day you get a chance to chat with the Don of the Bus.