What To Do When in Asia

Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.


India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen


Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls


Nepal: go trekking


Thailand: explore the entire country


Laos: travel and live on the Mekong


Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor


Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food


Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Here and There



A last look at Bali: the beach at Sanur

joylani 130pxDuring our last day in Bali we bought a couple of magazines and a newspaper.  The Jakarta Post went pretty fast, but we’ve both been taking our time going through the issues of The Economist and Newsweek.  It had been a while since we’d gotten any papers or even news online.  One of the features of the Newsweek is a special section on travel in the Gulf and travel fueled by oil money.  We both took our turns reading through the array of articles that covered things from $14,000 hotel rooms (yes, that price is quoted in US dollars, not Indonesian rupiah), luxurious air conditioned Bedouin tents in Oman’s desert, to $800 breakfast buffets, and both of decided that rolling in more money than you know what to do with it doesn’t sound so bad in terms of luxury travel. 

The last month in Indonesia was great, but it wasn’t without a lack of the comforts we’ve become accustomed to in other parts of SE Asia.  Ever since I dropped our soap holder between the shower stall and bungalow wall at the beginning of the year, we’ve been able to adequately scrub with mini-bars of soap provided by various hotels.  In Indonesia though, our supply ran out and we finally had to buy a full-sized bar of soap and dish.  Hot water?  Only at two of the places we stayed.  Until last night, we hadn’t had a hot shower since we left Ubud on the 16th.  During our stay on Gili Air we went without true fresh water for a week.  Nothing like a salty shower to rinse off that seawater. 

I’ve learned to cope.  Hot water isn’t necessary when the temperature inside your room doesn’t get below 85F most nights and a $2.50 pedicure is a good solution for feet that have been dusty for way too long.  This morning I used the fan in our room to blow dry my bangs that had dried haywire during the night.  Luxury is relative.  Perhaps the best thing of all, since arriving back in Malaysia, is that we sent out 4 kilos of laundry (that’s just about all our clothes plus two each of sleep sheets and towels) to be washed and dried by machine.  Talk about backpacker’s opulence; there’s just something wonderful about wearing a shirt that has shrunk back to its original size after way too many hand washings.  

This morning I got a chance to talk with my grandma on the phone and one of the questions she asked was, “Are you staying in a nice place?”  In fact, we are.  For a hostel it’s not too bad.  The good old Red Dragon (this is our third time staying at this swanky address) is located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s China Town in a renovated theater, as you can kind of tell from the sweeping staircase in the lobby and the theatresque walls in the interior.  The place has been carefully restored, though sadly without the addition of windows.  It continues to be cleaned (daily!), and I even noticed that they have fixed the broken shower holder since our last stay.  Also, when our AC didn’t work very well we were given a fan at no extra charge!  Finally, the sheets on two of the beds in our room have matching tangerine-colored sheets.  Always on the lookout for good design ideas and color schemes to take back home, I asked Matt how he liked the hue of the sheets; he responded (with a fist pump), “Goooooo giants!”

Who will drip on the floor in the bus

joylani 130pxWe left this afternoon for the airport in Johor Bahru.  During the ride it started pouring rain.  As the lightening flashed, I watched passengers rush on board, sloshing out of the rain.  Water dripped from their clothes and umbrella making a sea of puddles all over the bus.  Cars outside plowed through streams of water on the road, and I, thankfully still dry, listened to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean being played over the radio as I took in my last glimpses of Malaysia.  For a while at least.

Malaysian Economic Report

164_6445-4.JPGI haven’t done an economics-related post since we left Cambodia, but our recent travels have got me thinking again. While Brunei’s development can be simply described as wise stewardship of petrodollars, Singapore is truly an economic miracle. For a state that was in tears when it was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation, it has done pretty well. Its ability to attract not just trade to its port, but also huge inflows of intellectual and monetary capital, has made it global business center. But we weren’t in Singapore long enough to get anything more than an academic feel for its economy (although the shopping tempted Joylani to contribute to their GDP). Instead, this post will be mainly focused on Malaysia, where we’ve spent the past month.

Traditionally, Malaysia’s economic story has been commodities. This is apparent as soon as you travel anywhere in the country. Driving through the country, you could go for hours without seeing anything but palm plantations. Flying over or into the nation, the landscape looks like a bunch of green dots arranged in nice straight rows. For decades, the nation’s fortunes has risen and fallen with the price of palm oil and rubber. Malaysia’s other major commodity is oil. Malaysia’s early Malay leaders sought to include parts of Borneo in their new state, in order to increase the ratio of Malays to Chinese in the future Malaysian Federation. Along with a bunch of ethnic Malays to bolster their political power, Borneo came with a lot of oil. The country’s most iconic images, the Petronas Towers, were built by the nation’s largest corporation, Petronas, an oil conglomerate. Pick up any financial paper and you’ll undoubtedly read about the so-called “commodities super-cycle.” Super-cycle or not, commodities across the board have enjoyed a meteoric price increase in the past several years. Consequently, unprecedented amounts of capital are pouring into country, fueling its economy. Additionally, its large, educated, English-speaking population is beginning to be noticed by multi-national corporations (MNCs). Hi-tech manufacturing plants have been established in Malaysia (chances are, your hard-drive casing is made there) and I expect more growth in that area as China’s currency continues to appreciate. Electronic components are already Malaysia’s largest export and the reason why the US and Japan are its largest trading partners, respectively. As far as services are concerned, some are looking towards Malaysia for their IT/BPO needs. As India’s wages increase and competitiveness in that sector begins to rely more on quality than price, Malaysia should be a prime benefactor. Travelling around SEA, Malaysia seems to be the most developed country aside from tiny Brunei and Singapore. It has invested heavily not only in traditional infrastructure projects, but in business-dependent areas such as telecommunications. The government is keen to attract foreign capital and is consistently ranked as one of the easiest nations in which to do business. Its GDP hovers around 5%, while inflation has been contained below 3% (thanks in part to government subsidies, which most Asian countries use).

Before you throw all your money in Malaysian ETF though, know the risks. Although the subprime crisis did not hit Malaysia directly, the resulting global market turmoil took the KL Composite down along with virtually every other bourse around the world. As a former British colony with a huge Chinese population, Malaysia’s markets are highly connected and thus, correlated, with both European and Asian markets. The risks of this have been evident in the past few months, as the markets been dragged down despite no real changes in fundamentals. Secondly, although commodities have done quite well lately, a downturn could have negative affects on the nation, much as they did after other commodity bubbles popped. Lastly, Malaysia is still feeling the effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Many buildings built 10 years ago are still vacant, unable to attract tenants. Even the famous Petronas Towers, completed 10 years ago, still have not reached full occupancy. The vast oversupply of real estate, that was built during the bubble leading up to crisis, has still yet to find sufficient demand. Although currencies in the region are now much more correlated to fundamentals, the prospect of an overheating economy or one that grows just a bit too quickly for its own good is still a possibility. Despite the risks, Malaysia should be on any Asian investor’s shortlist or anyone looking to gain exposure to Asia or commodities. The growth potential and the government’s commitment to encourage that growth is attractive. Plus, Malaysia has far less political risk than most Asian markets. I believe Malaysia to be a great long-term buy, especially given the recent correction in valuations.

In hindsight…

joylani 130px…seeing that after three-weeks the bites-turned-blisters which had turned into oozing sores on my foot were not getting any better, and were in fact beginning to spread, I decided that perhaps I should see a doctor.  In hindsight, two doses of antibiotics, pain pills, antibiotic cream, and untold numbers of Band-Aids later…Matt and I concluded that perhaps we should have skipped sand fly infested Tioman and instead spent more days diving out of Semporna where is cheaper, better visibility, more options for food, etc. etc.  And maybe I should have gone to a doctor sooner?  Open wounds and water do not mix well.  But thankfully after just a day of popping antibiotics, things are starting to look better. 

Goodbye Malaysia



164_6445-4.JPGI 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.

Oh Melaka



thanks for the free wifi, little shop on the corner with the graffiti

joylani 130pxMelaka 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.




164_6445-4.JPGOur 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.

Kota Kinabalu


joylani 130pxOnce 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.


Malaysian Food


164_6445-4.JPGI’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.