"And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven."
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road
It has been established that it is currently the rainy season in Southeast Asia. It has also been mentioned that this particular rainy season has indeed been quite rainy. A result of that is that even as I am typing this entry, my little island of skyscrapers, stray dogs, and restaurants with wheels is slowly shrinking. Flood waters are constricting in around this city of millions like a python around its prey, steady and slow with the confidence that it has all the time in the world. However, before I get too graphic, I should complete my disclaimer that this entry is not really about the rainy season at all. Nor is it about the flood. The only reason I’ve brought it up is because I based my choice of travel destination during my last break from work on the fact that it was the rainy season. With that knowledge in mind, I decided to save beach bumming for a later day and journeyed into a couple of the great cities of SE Asia, sandwiching a brief jaunt to some foggy highland mountains in between.
SingaporeLeaving southbound from Bangkok, I was in a plane flying towards the country, the city, the island of Singapore. Famously or infamously – whichever, I still can’t really say – Singapore is certainly known internationally as a standout from the rest of the countries in South East Asia. It has one of the most capitalistic free market economies in the world, but it also has an eerie, big-brotherish society that seems way too concerned with managing people’s lives. One of the first examples of this I noticed upon arriving in Singapore was that their extensive MRT system plays a recording about every two minutes, stating “If you see any suspicious-looking people, please report them immediately to MRT authorities.” If they played that on the BTS in Bangkok, there’d be no end to the finger-pointing. Public transit and weirdos go together like street food and anonymous hairs. But in Singapore it seems like they are striving to make their MRT as un-public as possible. Another example of Singapore going against the Asian grain is that it’s actually pretty clean, especially in the commercial Marina Bay sector. Although just average when compared to western cleanliness, relative to cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Phnom Penh - Singapore is a glistening white pearl of sterilization. I knew I had been in Asia too long, because the spotlessness of the streets actually confused me for a while. Then, upon long contemplation, I realized that in Singapore people actually throw garbage away. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I’m pretty sure that was their secret.
After riding the MRT from Changi Airport into the city, I hopped off in Chinatown to look for a cheap place to stay. Again - relative to other Asian countries, “cheap” in Singapore isn’t really a thing, but I did manage to find a dorm bed in the middle of Chinatown for about $17 US. After getting arranged in my hostel I set out into the city with three ultimate goals – eat, eat, and eat. You see, before I ever came to Asia, I had seen on travel TV shows and websites, and read in magazines that Singapore was this incredible, international foodie city - a gastronomical gem where all Asian cuisine’s can be found and enjoyed for reasonable prices. So when I finally made it to the city, I knew I wanted to try as many new, delicious treats as possible. Across the street from my guesthouse in Chinatown was Maxwell’s food center. This was my first destination. Maxwell’s is one of the more famous of Singapore’s ubiquitous food center institutions. When locals are hungry, they head straight for a food center because you can find a huge variety of food stalls serving high quality fare for budget prices. At Maxwell’s I found the exact dish that I wanted to be my first meal in Singapore – chicken and rice. Now, before you say, “Travis, that sounds incredibly plain,” understand that if there was one single dish to fly a flag proclaiming itself as actual “Singaporean food” it would be this one. Next, understand that the moniker “chicken and rice” really does not do this dish justice. It should be called “sweet, tender, seasoned chicken with sticky, fatty, fragrant rice.” It looks quite average but the taste is simply addicting.
So with one satisfying meal under my belt (literally) I set out into the busy downtown business sector of Singapore. Skyscrapers rose up to my left and right, filed into my front and back, and eventually I was surrounded. It got more and more difficult to maintain a sense of direction
as towers of increasing sizes loomed over my head, but eventually I caught glimpses of water and knew I was close to the Marina Bay. The Marina Bay area is easily the most modernized sector of the city. It consists of some large business towers, more than a few posh restaurants and bars, and some tourist attractions all situated around the mouth of a small river. From anywhere in this area you can look across the Bay and see the new and world famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel, and the durian-inspired Singapore Opera House. I wandered around this area for a while, taking in the sites and snapping some pictures. Eventually I settled in at a waterside café and waited for night to come. As impressive as the views of the city were from this vantage point, I wanted to see it all lit up in the dark. After waiting about an hour and a half with a horde of other tourists, I snapped some pictures of the beautiful skyline, the bay, and the merlion.
“Um, Travis. Did you say Merlion?” Yes, I did. It’s like a mermaid except, you know, a merlion. If a merlion sounds like some terrifying creature spawned from your unsettling malaria medication-induced dreams, don’t worry. You’re on the same page as the rest of us. As bizarre as it sounds, the merlion is kind of the national symbol of Singapore. Even though I still don’t really understand it, allow me to try to explain. Singapore has been known for some time as “the lion city” – an English nickname derived from the Malay “Singapura.” The fish part I’ve read was inspired by Singapore’s origins as a tiny fishing village. So of course it made since to fuse these two vaguely related points of the country’s history into one creepy national icon. The most massive and horrifying depiction of the merlion is a 40-foot tall statue that sits at the mouth of the Marina Bay shooting water out of its mouth and into the twilight zone.To witness this terrible mythical creature captured on film, refer to the photograph accompanying this blog, or just Google it.
The next day I went to the world famous Singapore Zoo. Everyone loves zoos, even as a solo 23 year-old traveler. There was no way I was going to leave Singapore without checking out its zoo. It’s known for being an enormous zoo with hundreds of exhibits and the whole range of exotic wildlife, but another interesting thing is that there isn’t a cage in the entire zoo. This means that you can get some really great pictures of animals hanging out, and sometimes it also means you can get very, very close to them. The highlight of the day was exploring the huge rainforest exhibit. This was a huge enclosed terrarium that was meant to represent all of the levels of life in a rainforest. For example when I first walked into the exhibit I was on the ground level with trees tall above my head and all sorts of greenery spiraling down from the top all the way to the bottom. Then I looked down and realized that just off into the bushes I could see a number of little critters grazing. After some exploring, I realized these critters were actually mouse deer – the smallest species of deer in the world, about the size of a house cat. On this level butterflies fluttered around my head, frogs jumped from leaf to leaf, and turtles and fish and ducks played in the little brook. As I followed the trail upwards to the next level of the rainforest, I started to see signs of the loud monkeys shaking branches and startling the birds. Once in a while I saw some brightly colored ground fowl hopping across the trail. Finally I made it to the canopy – the rainforest's highest level. This was where the action was. Five different kinds or monkeys were swinging and playing around my head, occasionally dropping to the ground to scamper through my feet. The larger monkeys, quite unimpressed with the youngling’s restlessness, were taking an afternoon nap on branches just out of reach. A hefty, three-food, multihued Iguana was sunning itself on a rail as I passed by. At the very top I stepped up to a raised platform that overlooked the entire exhibit, and then I almost peed my pants. Not four feet away from me, hanging upside down at eye level, staring me directly in the face was the largest, most heinously winged abomination that has ever haunted my nightmares. It was like a bat in the way that Cthulhu is like a monster. Imagine a feral mangy dog with a six-foot wingspan. After briefly weeping for the loss of my sanity, I inched closer and snapped a few pictures of the chimera chomping down on some jungle fruit. I even managed to get a video. I felt much like that first bigfoot videographer must have felt – even with conclusive visual evidence, I still knew no one would believe it. After doing some research, I found that this animal actually has a quite appropriate and literal name – the Indian Flying Fox – and it is a species of megabat… No, that is not a joke. I did not make that up. Here is more evidence for any nonbelievers: Indian Flying Fox
That experience turned out to be memorable for unexpected reasons, but really the whole day at the Singapore Zoo was wonderful. The thing about zoos is that they truly do appeal to all ages. I was surrounded all day by children and families, but who cares about that when there’s only an inch thick plane of glass between you and two cheetahs or when zookeepers are feeding a hundred baboons and one of them is doing flips to get attention. Animals are cool, and they will always be cool. I highly recommend the zoo to anyone who has half a day to kill in Singapore.
After the zoo I went back into the city to meander around Little India. There I checked out some of the markets and sat down to snack on cheap Indian food a couple times before I made my way back to my guesthouse. I had to wrangle up all of my things and get ready for a long bus trip. This night I was leaving Singapore on an overnight bus into Malaysia. The next morning I would wake up to a misty sunrise over the mountains, venturing into the highlands of central peninsular Malaysia.
Cameron HighlandsMy stop in Cameron Highlands was somewhat impromptu. Originally, I wanted to make Penang Island my stop between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. But the more I thought about it, the less appealing it seemed. Three metropolitan destinations in one week just seemed like overkill. I live in Bangkok for God’s sake - I don’t need any more pollution or traffic in my life. So at the last minute, I decided to change my plans and travel into the relative sanctuary of the cool, quiet, lazy highlands – and I’m so glad I did.
Cameron Highlands is famous for nature. The town of Tanah Rata is minimalist, but everything else is amazing. Branching out into the hills around the town are jungle trekking trails that are fairly easy to traverse as long as you have proper footwear and hiking gear. Popping up along roads and trails are all sorts of little attractions such as strawberry farms, butterfly farms, cactus farms, and fruit and vegetable markets. However, the main draws to the area are the tea plantations. The Boh Tea Company has a few massive plantations situated among the rolling hills that are all free to explore.
With only two full days in the highlands I had no time to waste. I arrived from my overnight bus around 9 in the morning and immediately found a guesthouse. I threw my stuff down, took a quick shower, grabbed a map, and bolted out to do some independent exploration. When I travel, I don’t like to take taxis everywhere. For one thing it is expensive, but you also miss so much detail when you just jump from A to B to C. Walking helps you really understand a new place. You can see locals going about their normal life. You can smell the food, the air, and the garbage. You have time to think and to digest the constant stimulation of a new environment. And you also find a lot of nice hidden gems that might not be on normal tourist agendas. So even though the distances between destinations were quite large in the Cameron Highlands, I was determined to do as much walking as possible, letting the journey take precedent over all else. With that in mind I started the day on Jungle Trail Number 9. This tight, windy trail wandered over and around the sloping hills for about four kilometers and ended at a terraced vegetable farm. It lightly rained for the majority of this trek, which really only contributed to the wild jungle experience. I remember stopping on the trail after what seemed like quite a long time, and I realized that I had not seen another person for over an hour. In fact, as I stood there taking in the dense Malaysian jungle, the only distinguishable sign of humanity was the two-foot wide muddy trail under my shoes. I continued on.
As the trail immerged into the world again, I came to a crossroads. Right led back towards town, and left led up into the hills towards the Boh Tea Estate. I went left. On my map the road I took looked like a long wormy line, wiggling for about eight kilometers towards, through, and beyond the tea plantation. However, my map failed to depict the fact that the entire journey would be unceasingly uphill. This day was going to provide much more exercise that I had anticipated, but no matter – with scenery as beautiful and majestic as what I saw around me, the journey truly became the adventure, and I just wanted to take it all in. So up and up I went. Then I went up some more. Around this curve, around that bend, I passed farms and homes. Cars and motorbikes honked as they passed me, as if to say “Holy crap that guy is trying to walk the whole way! Hey man, you can do it!” It took me about an hour and a half to get to the entrance of the tea plantation, and from there it was another steep kilometer to the factory. This is when I really started to appreciate the effort I put into this undertaking. The vibrant, manicured greenery of the tea bushes began to slowly unfold around me. Without any trees, my eyes could follow the rolling curvaceous hills through the valley. Dicing up the bushes was a system of narrow trails for the leaf pickers to walk through, each one cut an even two-arms’ span away from the next one. The effect is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I really don’t think I have the words to do it justice. Fortunately, I took plenty of pictures. After making it up to the factory of the plantation I continued with my dwindling tank of energy to the viewpoint at the very top of the hill. From here I could gaze for miles down into the valley from which I had come, and I could gaze for miles ahead into a valley of which I would never go. Paths unfolded like seams in a great quilt of green and green and blue. The day was receding and I needed to get back to my guesthouse for some much needed R&R. Luckily, I met an English couple at the tea factory and they offered
to drive me down the mountain to the main road. From there I split a taxi to Tanah Rata with two French travelers, grabbed some dinner and settled in for some recuperation time.
The next day I booked a half day tour through my guesthouse. The tour began early in the morning. Our first destination was the summit of the highest mountain in the Cameron Highlands. I piled in a van with a group of about six other travelers, and we gunned it up the mountain switchbacks, eventually making it to the top. At the tor, there was a multilevel observation deck we could ascend to take in the breath-taking view of the Cameron Highlands in full. After spending a short time here, we continued down the road to a protected area known as the Mossy Forest. According to the guide, a mossy forest is a particular brand of rain forest that appears only at very high altitudes and grows only out of the very squishy and wet peat soil. The mossy forest that we explored was one of the few remaining of its kind in Malaysia and was carefully protected. After this adventure, our group rolled back down the mountain and into another tea plantation that proved to be even more picturesque than the one I had explored the previous day. We toured the factory there, sampled the tea, took some photos, and were off again before the mid-afternoon rains began.
I got back to my guesthouse around 3pm and spent the rest of the day mozying around town, enjoying some of the delicious and cheap Malay and Indian food. For dinner that day I had a fantastic Indian banana leaf set dinner that featured about ten different items served in small portions, all dumped on top of a banana leaf and accompanied by the omnipresent tea tarik. After that I took my Kindle to a little park in the middle of town to read, relax, and take a breath. This trip was turning out to be a whirlwind affair, so it was nice to spend a couple hours totally stationary, just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the little town I would be leaving the next morning.
Kuala LumpurThe KL – Wow, what a city it was! It was sensory overload to the tenth degree. You can think of it as the “So, So City” in the sense that it was so hot, so humid, so loud, so bright, so dirty, so green, so brown. It was so wet, so wild, so rich and so poor. It was crazy, but I loved it. Again I found a guesthouse next to the Chinatown district, although this time it seemed less like a bedroom and more like a prison cell with a fan and a lamp, but I didn’t care. It was cheap, and I never spend much time in the guesthouses anyway. Upon arrival, I immediately jaunted out into the steamy city. Within minutes I was drenched in sweat. The humidity was palpable. Even in Bangkok, I had not felt humidity like this. I slowly slogged through they city towards a large central hill crowned by a massive needle-like observation tower. Up I went to the main viewing deck that offered 360-degree views of the city. One of the first things you notice about the city from this vantage point is how green it is. Skyscrapers look as though they sprouted straight up out of the jungle swamp. Islands of vegetation exist everywhere - interspersed between the gushing rivers of concrete and steel. And as you raise your eyes, peering out towards the horizon, the grey stops abruptly and the green prevails. An interesting note about this observation deck, is that it is the highest possible viewing deck for tourists in the city, even though the Petronas Towers, a couple of kilometers away, were the highest buildings in the world only a few years ago. This is because the observation deck in the Petronas Towers is at the cross bridge that spans the two buildings but is only about half way up their full height. The rest of the two buildings above that bridge are not open to the general public.
After leaving this observation deck, I continued my trek through the city, stopping under the twin towers for a prime photo-op. I hopped on the LRT, which is Kuala Lumpur’s version of a skytrain and not nearly as impressive as Bangkok’s BTS. I took the train a couple stops north of the city center to explore a wild daytime market. On display were cow’s heads, flopping fish, tentacles of varying liveliness, and other unidentifiables. There were fruits and vegetables of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Pretty soon the sun began to set on my busy day of city slicking, so I went back to my guesthouse, had dinner in Chinatown, and prepared for my last full day in Malaysia.
I got an early start the next day. I had breakfast and walked over to the nearest bus station. After asking around, I found the route I was looking for and jumped on the city bus. My destination was the Batu Caves, a series of caves and temples located about ten miles outside the city. While the caves themselves are pretty impressive to behold, the thing that makes them really worth the trip is that they are also a sacred Hindu site and are decorated as such. In fact the Batu Caves are one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, which may seem peculiar considering Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, but there is actually quite a substantial Indian population in the country as well. The bus ride to the caves took about 45 minutes, but once I got there, I was free to roam and explore the system of caverns. One of the most immediately noticeable features of this site is the massive golden Hindu statue standing at the foot of the 272-step stairway leading up into the mouth of the largest cave. During the climb to the top, you can see monkeys amusing themselves by harassing unprepared tourists. At the top, I began to realize how truly sacred this site was. Although also serving as an attraction for package tourists, the caves are still frequented by devout Hindu followers who attend the temples throughout the cave system dressed in full traditional Hindu wardrobe. Inside the caves incense burned and deep spiritual chanting echoed from the walls. Shafts of light broke through small holes in the rocky ceiling far, far about my head, causing the gilded temples to glitter and shine. Unspeakably sacred altars nestled into the nooks of something massively natural. It was a beautiful and powerful site.
Outside the caves I dined on a delicious authentic Indian spread, then headed back into the city. In the afternoon I explored a couple of KL’s parks and spent an hour in a picnic shelter to keep out of the rain. My time in Malaysia was running out, but that was okay. I felt like I had really got my time and money’s worth of this trip. I sat and reflected on all that I managed to do in such a short time. Remember, all of the above was accomplished in only six days. I had beat down the road, the trail, the path and wore holes in my shoes. It was fast, and it was furious, but it was also exciting and wonderful. It was a well planned, well executed, and highly successful trip. When I returned to Bangkok, I had a terribly difficult time readjusting to a stagnant lifestyle. I felt as though I was in withdraw from the constant motion and the endless stimulation provided by the road and everything on it. That's why this blog was particularly enjoyable to write and why it may have rambled on at times. The gushing of memories onto a page can be quite therapeutic to one so afflicted with the travel bug.
I know this entry seems to go on and on, but there’s one final note I want to mention about both Singapore and Malaysia. Something that I found very interesting about these countries is that they are both very diverse when it comes to the ethnicities of their people. In Singapore, there seemed to be about equal parts Malay, Chinese, and Indian people with tons of westerners sprinkled in as well. Malaysia had a similar mix minus the westerners, but an altogether more spiritual vibe - Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all being strongly represented. It was a refreshing contrast to the highly homogenous Asian countries in which I had previously traveled. In places like Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, your either the national ethnicity or you’re a foreigner. I enjoyed very much the salad bowl cultures of these two countries because, at least in this small way, it reminded me of home – a place where your nationality and your ethnicity aren’t necessarily one in the same.