Thursday, January 26, 2012

Malay Melee

So before I start... A while ago I blogged about feeling trapped in Korea. Then I took a two-week vacation to Malaysia. Then I came home and started watching the classic British TV series "The Prisoner"...

The thing I've noticed after racing through the first eleven or so episodes of "The Prisoner" - not to spoil anything for anyone - is that Patrick McGoohan seems to have an immense talent for actually getting away from The Village and then ending up back there anyway. (Not like those "Lost" people who... oh wait, right, don't spoil anything for anyone. Sorry.) I mean he escapes in the second episode of the series. Imagine how that pitch meeting went: "So what happens in the second episode?" "He escapes." "Um, Patrick, you do realize we have seventeen episodes to do, right?" So I was going to blog about how the vacation to Malaysia offered me some subconscious proof that I'm not trapped here, but after watching approximately 2/3 of "The Prisoner" I'm getting this feeling like we may all be trapped in some sort of existential prison wrought upon us by society, or something like that. So how do I deal with that? Regardless, I don't think Patrick McGoohan would make a very good ESL teacher since he would be constantly running away and starting revolts and being hospitalized by anti-escape orbs and such. Oh well, his loss.

So, the vacation... It was awesome. Let me give you the blow-by-blow.

After a lengthy, sleepless red-eye flight from Incheon (if you want to sleep on a plane, I recommend against taking an aisle seat next to a bathroom) I arrived in Kuala Lumpur and headed for my hotel in Chinatown. Every tourist-friendly city in Malaysia (that wasn't bombed back to the Stone Age during World War II, like Kota Kinabalu) seems to have a historic Chinatown area where all the low-priced tourist hotels and backpackers' guest houses are. My hotel was right along Jalan Petaling, which is the epicenter of the Chinatown night market, a place where you can purchase just about any Chinese knockoff luxury item you could imagine. Arriving at Jalan Petaling first thing in the morning is a strange experience because the night market hawkers with their stalls don't start arriving until a little before lunch. When you roll up with your bags, Jalan Petaling is a mostly empty street with a handful of shops and hotels. By nightfall the entire street is filled  from curb to curb with hawkers and stalls to the point where you have to navigate a short maze to find your way back to your hotel. It's an incredible transformation to witness on a daily basis.

I started my time in KL with a day trip to the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia, or FRIM, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The major attraction at FRIM is probably their canopy walk, which offers the opportunity to observe the jungle canopy from 30 meters above the ground courtesy a network of metal ladders, planks and safety netting strung together between treetops. The canopy was fun from a thrill-ride perspective but I was a little let down by the lack of wildlife in the area. It's possible that I was let down because I was expecting a little too much from the Malaysian jungle on my first day in the country. The other letdown was the complete lack of food on the FRIM campus, since the cantina was closed for some reason and the only other food vendors on the campus only sold snacks. Suffice it to say that after a day of hiking in tropical weather with almost no food and a sleepless night aboard an airplane, day one turned out to be a short day.

Day two was my appointed day to conquer Petronas Towers. My guidebook recommended showing up by 8:30 AM or shortly thereafter to get a place in line for one of the extremely limited number of tickets. I'm certainly glad that I followed that advice, because by the time I got in line at 8:30 sharp they had already set the cutoff point for the morning's tours at a point several individuals in front of me. Luckily as a lone traveler I was able to grab the last ticket for one of the final tours of the day instead of having to wait for a mid-day tour or get a ticket for a tour the next morning. So travelers, be warned: if you want to visit the observation decks at Petronas Towers, plan a time-flexible day.

Fortunately, by getting in on the last tour of the day, I was able to spend the bulk of the day doing other things, the most interesting being a trip to Batu Caves. Batu Caves, like FRIM, is another attraction on the edge of KL's mass transit system. The main attraction at Batu Caves is Temple Cave, a large, open cave with an expansive concrete floor leading to an open-air area in the back with a Hindu shrine. Somewhat more prominent than the cave are the giant golden statue of Muruga standing in front of it and the 200-plus steps leading up to its entrance.

The statue of Muruga and the steps at Batu Caves
The steps leading up to Temple Cave are rife with macaques, who are extremely happy to be photographed close up and also extremely happy to relieve your bags of any snatchable items while you're doing it. The little devils are smart, too - when they see you have a camera and something fun to snatch like a water bottle or a train schedule, they'll wait until you have your eye up to the viewfinder and then rob you blind. They're also largely immune to loud expressions of displeasure such as, "Hey!" or, "Fuck off, ya little bastard!" Don't try to retrieve your stuff from them, either, unless you feel like getting bit by a pissed-off thieving monkey.

Here's the one that snagged my water bottle...
A marvelous surprise for me was Dark Cave, the cave almost immediately next door to Temple Cave. Unlike Temple Cave, Dark Cave has been preserved by local environmentalists and naturalists in a mostly natural state as a home for wildlife, including some endangered species unique to the cave. A guided tour takes flashlight-carrying groups through Dark Cave's simple, unlit concrete paths to observe cave-dwellers like cockroaches and centipedes (and a few less natural residents, such as the stray feral dog we glimpsed at one point) in their natural environment. The sound of bats chirping and squeaking overhead (and the layer of bat guano on the floor below, to the sides of the path) was a constant reminder that we weren't in a typical tour-sanitized cave. I was really surprised to find a cave where the emphasis had been placed on maintaining the habitat for cave-dwelling animals instead of satisfying the needs of camera-toting tourists right next door to a heavily-developed cave full of shrines, concrete and gift shops hawking all manner of Hindu tchotchkes. (Isn't it funny how tchotchkes seems to be a vital part of so many world religions, yet only Yiddish has a proper word for it?)

Scheduling the Petronas Towers tour for early evening turned out to be a fortuitous move, since the light at that time of day was perfect for photography. My guidebook stated that the tour only goes up to the Skybridge between the two towers, but it actually goes to the Skybridge and an observation deck near the top of Tower 2. The view from the Skybridge was nice but the evening view from the Tower 2 observation deck was downright breathtaking. The layout of the observation deck offers close to a 360-degree view of the area around the towers, including some free-to-use viewing scopes that magnify things to a degree that's almost frightening. (Had I wanted to, I could have counted missing shingles on rooftops more than a kilometer away.)

By the way, here are those pics of Petronas Towers that I was fantasizing about taking in my last blog post:

Loving the sky. Remind me to use my polarizer more often.

...Unless it's early evening and the light is perfect the way it is, like this.
I spent my last morning in KL at the KL Bird Park, which is an expansive, netted-off aviary in Lake Gardens (Taman Tasik Perdana), a large park to the west of Chinatown. Probably the most interesting parts of KL Bird Park are the large, net-covered areas where tourists are free to mix with the birds close-up, without any cages separating humans and birds. The birds in these areas tend to be fairly run-of-the-mill petting zoo faire - peacocks, flamingoes, parrots and parakeets, some colorful roosters - with a few interesting species mixed in for good measure. The rarer birds (like hornbills), larger birds (like ostriches and emus) and birds of prey are kept separately in zoo-like enclosures. It wasn't nearly as much fun as spotting birds in the wild, but it was a good place to try out my new 70-210mm zoom before taking it out into the field.
I bought this lens. There's wildlife here. Therefore I am so gonna use this lens.
I also had every intention to go to the Islamic Arts Museum, which by all accounts is world-class, but unfortunately I had to skip it to get to Melaka, my next destination.

Originally I had intended to travel by train around the Malaysian peninsula, but my guidebook said that the Melaka Sentral bus station was much closer to the central tourist area in Melaka so I took the bus instead. As it turns out, I ended up traveling exclusively by bus in the peninsula. Long-distance buses in Malaysia are generally faster and more convenient than traveling by train, and most of them tend to be modern and extremely comfortable (although lacking a toilet, unlike Greyhound's buses in the US). The bus I took from KL to Melaka Sentral may genuinely be the nicest bus I've ever traveled on, and the shiny new Bersepadu Selatan bus terminal it departed from wasn't bad either. The bus from Melaka Sentral to the city's historic Town Square, on the other hand, looked like something out of a movie about a war for independence in sub-Saharan Africa. I have to say, though, that part of me didn't felt like I had really arrived in Malaysia until I got to Melaka Sentral and saw that bus. As nice as KL is, being in a modern urban capital sometimes feels like the sanitized version of a country. Riding the clean, modern rapid transit trains in KL doesn't give you the same feel for everyday life that jumping on a beat-up bus with no air conditioning and those same uncomfortable vinyl bench seats that were on every bus you ever rode to school does. It was a little shocking to realize, especially after living and working in Korea as a foreigner for so long, that I had been in Malaysia for several days and it was possible that I hadn't really spoken to any Malaysians who weren't selling something or working behind a service desk. In this case, at least, I knew that the locals and I were definitely all riding the same bus. I hope I'm not fetishizing poverty by saying that I didn't really feel like I had arrived in Malaysia before I got on a shitty bus instead of a nice one, but hey, if I learned anything from Marc Meron and all those hours of WTF Podcast that I listened to during the trip, it's that sometimes the most dangerous thing you can do in life is be honest.

I really enjoyed Melaka. For one, it was my first guest house stay of the trip. Another backpacker led me to the Sana-Sana Guest House in Melaka's Chinatown and I was in love at first sight. Old creaky hardwood floors, no A/C, a patched pink mosquito net hanging over the tiny single twin bed in my room, and a cat lounging lazily in the open courtyard overgrown with plants. It was as far from a corporate hotel as I could possibly get. I was also surprised in the morning, at 5:50 AM, when I was suddenly awoken by the sound or morning prayers coming through my window from the nearby mosque. (Do Muslims really get up that early every day? That sounds like a really intense commitment to make to a religion. Is there a waiver for hangovers?) I spent that evening and most of the next day walking, taking pictures, enjoying the cafes and soaking in the history of Malaysia's former Portuguese and Dutch port of call. Melaka's historic district has the feeling of a well-preserved New England town - not too big and not too small, with enough genuine history to maintain its unique character but enough cafes and bric-a-brac shops to keep the tourists happy. I thought the reconstructed Sultanate Palace and the museum at the Stadthuys were excellent educational compliments to preserved, unrestored shells of Melaka's past like St. Paul's Church and the one remaining gate of Porta de Santiago, the old Portuguese fort. (Or possibly the one remaining gate, Porta de Santiago, of the old Portuguese fort. I never did figure out if the gate or the fort was named Porta de Santiago.)

So hey - are you part of the thing, or are you the thing?
My time in Melaka was long enough to see everything, but not long enough to read all the tags in the museums - in other words, just long enough for me. I did linger just long enough to catch the first tour after lunch at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, a house set up to showcase the lives of Melaka's half-Chinese, half-Malay families, who, if their houses are any indication, did quite well for themselves in the Straits. The best part was probably the droll commentary from our tour guide. In slightly stilted English and wearing traditional garb, she would describe something like a turn-of-the-century hand-cranked ice cream maker and then finish her spiel with an offhand comment like, "Today, we buy ice cream at the store. Much, much easier."

By the way, one great thing about Malaysia for English-speaking travelers - everyone speaks English. I was way out in the jungle before I found someone who spoke any worse than mediocre English. In Singapore, where the "official" language is English, I heard more Chinese than anything else, and got a waiter at one Indian restaurant who didn't seem to understand any English. (An Indian abroad who doesn't speak English... I guess there's a first time for everything. And to think how often the rumor floats around EPIK that they're going to replace all of us with cheaper, better-trained teachers from India and the Philippines...) In Malaysia, people spoke among themselves in Malaysian or Hokkien or whatever, but they all knew and were quite willing to speak in English. Everyone was super friendly and happy to talk to foreigners as well. I guess that's the legacy of a country that's always been a nexus for international trade (and a former British colony to boot). It's a fairly stark contrast with a country that's historically been know as the "Hermit Kingdom"... But I digress. Back to the vacation!

Singapore, although much more expensive than Malaysia, was an interesting diversion. Singapore has a reputation for being squeaky-clean and boring, but the neighborhood where my hotel was, Geylang, was actually a really cool, vibrant working-class neighborhood with an interesting mix of migrant laborers and young professionals in newer housing developments. There were also two brothels next to my hotel. Funny how Singapore has this sterile reputation, but few people mention that it's legal to run a licensed brothel there. Luckily my hotel was quite clean and above-board, and actually had a lot of families staying there. I guess the advantage of having legal brothels is that the sketchy stuff stays in the brothels instead of leaking out into the hotels. I don't think anything I did in Singapore was all that remarkable, but it was enjoyable. I hiked up Singapore's highest mountain at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (a towering 163.63 meters - by comparison, my hometown in Korea's highest peak is 970 meters); I visited the Asian Civilizations Museum, which had a marvelous overview of cultures from all across Asia, especially those with close cultural ties to Singapore (not so much about Korea, Japan or Mongolia, though...); I took the cable car to Sentosa Island, enjoyed the beach, and regretted packing those sneakers after renting a shitty bike to traverse a pretty pedestrian bike path; I saw at least two buildings which I had only previously read about in architecture reviews (the Marina Bay Sands casino and the Daniel Liebskind-designed, half-constructed Reflections at Keppel Bay development); and I took pictures of both of Singapore's mascot Merlions - the real one at Merlion Park near the colonial district, and the pretender at Sentosa Island.

The REAL merlion

The DISNEY merlion
The only other notable thing I did in Singapore was go to Orchard Road, the Mecca of shopping malls in a city that's famous for its shopping malls. When travel guides and similar resources describe Orchard Road, they don't do justice to the experience that is walking the length of the monument to conspicuous consumption that is Orchard Road. For example, Times Square is famous as a center of commercialism and advertising as entertainment, and I've been to Times Square many times, but Times Square is only like two blocks. Orchard Road is more like the Vegas Strip of shopping districts. There are DOZENS of multi-story shopping malls, and each one seems to be trying to outdo the next in terms of glitz and opulence. It's like Vegas trying to build a Times Square casino, and a dozen other casino operators trying to build a even bigger, glitzier Times Square casino right next door. It's intense. I rode the escalators to the top floor of one mall and found an entire floor dedicated solely to really expensive shit for toddlers. No joke, like Baby Armani and shit. (Remembering how quickly I outgrew clothes as a kid and had to dig through shopping bags of hand-me-downs from cousins to find new clothes, I really, REALLY hope somebody is getting that Baby Armani shit as hand-me-downs.) Oh, and at the very end of Orchard Road is one shopping center that's - you guessed it - a giant center for illegal prostitution. Just like Times Square and the Vegas Strip, huh? I won't bother providing the name of the shopping center, but you can find it on Wikipedia under "Prostitution in Singapore" if you really need to know. (That's the only reason I knew what it was, by the way. I stumbled across the page while I was researching what I would be in for if I booked a hotel room in Geylang. Hey, I'm a cautious traveler, I need to know these things before I go to a city so I can stay away from them, obviously.) When I ducked inside (come on, you don't travel three thousand miles to not see the mall full of hookers on Orchard Road in Singapore) I discovered that the escalator was broken, and I had to deliver an NFL-quality shoulder block to keep from being knocked over by some drunk guy coming down the escalator, which was clearly only designed to service one row of riders before it was re-purposed as an impromptu two-way staircase. Mere moments later as I was leaving (much like the museums in Melaka, I did not need to read every tag on the displays to get the gist of the place) some other drunk guy - judging by the age, haircut and accent, probably a member of the US Armed Forces - was walking out with his friend indiscriminately yelling "Gay boy!" at every person and object in sight. (Issues? Definitely issues.) And like I said, all this was right next to the world's most ostentatious collection of multi-billion dollar shopping centers and departments stores selling Armani to toddlers. Only in Singapore.

Let's move on. It's time for Borneo.

Along with Melaka, Kuching was probably my favorite of all the places I visited. The city is actually fairly large - my taxi driver told me it has 600,000 residents - but the Chinatown tourist district is a compact, walkable area with that same New England-y feel as Melaka. The guest house were I stayed, The Singgahsana Lodge, was awesome. I met lots of fellow travelers - especially at the rooftop bar in the evening - the staff was incredibly friendly, and they had a decent tour desk. Did I mention the bar on the rooftop? My kind of place. I lost part of my first full day in Kuching due to a side trip the evening before with a German yoga instructor to a local Malay bar, where I sampled tuak, Borneo's homemade rice liquor. The bar gets extra points because the dude there in an Iron Maiden shirt was an actual Maiden fan and not just wearing the shirt to be cool. (His favorite Maiden album, by the way, was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I quizzed him. Had to be sure.) When I arrived in Kuching I was worried that I might have to hook up with tour groups to get to all the nearby attractions, but as it turns out I was able to travel independently or cheaply to all of them without paying for expensive tours. Highlights included spotting my first proboscis monkey at Bako National Park and exploring Fairy Cave, a giant cavern with no guides or staff and an MC Escher-esque network of concrete staircases that were clearly poured by someone who didn't bother to use a level. There were tons of things I didn't have time to do in Kuching, too, like seeing the giant, stinking Rafflesia flower at Gunung Gading National Park (none were in bloom; it was the right season, but the Rafflesias are apparently late to bloom this year), visiting the Sarawak Cultural Village to see recreations of traditional indigenous Borneo culture, and the German yoga instructor. (Sorry, sorry, it was a joke I couldn't pass up. But admit it, you were curious.) Also, my compliments to the Turkish coffee at the Little Lebanon cafe, it's the best I've had since I left behind all those little Egyptian coffee houses on Steinway in Astoria.

Landing on the beach at Bako National Park
From Kuching I flew to Kota Kinabalu to finally put in some time at the beach. I went snorkeling in open water for the first time at Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Manukan, rediscovered my (literal) distaste for salt water, and sunburned the crap out of my back and shoulders, but would gladly do it again any day. I guess it was a good thing that I had a round trip flight to Sandakan booked for the next day, since that gave me a reason to get out of the sun. I wasn't sure what I would do in Sandakan, other than going to the famous orangutan rehabilitation center in nearby Sepilok, but the helpful manager of the Borneo 1945 Museum near my guest house suggested a two-day, one-night all-inclusive tour of the Sungai Kinabatangan (Kinabatangan River) that sounded like it was worth taking a chance on. So I paid an agent in KK for a tour in Sandakan, arranging to meet the operator, who had no way to contact me, at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center at noon. Guess how this story turns out...

Quite well, actually. First off, the orangutan center was amazing. Sepilok rescues orphaned orangutans and attempts to rear them to eventually return to the wild. Orangutans are fairly intelligent so they can learn a lot of important survival skills from observing wild orangutans, but the center needs to nurse them back to health and teach them some basic climbing and foraging skills before they can successfully transition back to the wild. So the orangutans that tourists see at the center are actually in a transitional stage where they've been released back into the wild but still come back to the center at feeding times for meals. According to the center, some released orangutans return to the center for a period of five to ten years to feed, and some immediately depart for the jungle and are never seen again. This means that the orangutans at the center aren't exactly wild orangutans, but it's a good opportunity for tourists to observe orangutans up close without seeing them locked in cages. And when I say up close, I mean up close. At the morning feeding I attended, one orangutan came crashing out of the jungle and walked right along the railing of the walkway, right between two groups of surprised tourists. The center's staff had to work fairly hard to get the crowd at hand to observe the recommended seven meter distance from this powerful ape, which I personally did without asking. Shortly thereafter, a crowd of three to five orangutans, including several mothers carrying young, came to the feeding platforms for a breakfast of fruit and greens. It was really incredible to get so close to wild (well, semi-wild) orangutans with no fences or cages. They're really amazing creatures. After the feeding, while I was waiting for my tour operator, an orangutan came out of the jungle and started climbing around the edges of the visitor's center! I couldn't believe how comfortable these free, jungle-dwelling orangutans were around humans. It's a sight to behold. (Don't try to run up and hug one, though - the rehabilitation center I went to near Kuching had lots of gory pictures of orangutan bites, and the adults are strong enough to rip a human in half, although I doubt they would do it without a pretty good reason.)

Orangutans chowing down at Sepilok
The driver for my tour operator showed up in a private car not too long after noon. I was kind of expecting a van, but I got in anyway. We hit the road for Bilit, which is about a two-hour drive from Sepilok. I dozed off and when I awoke we were traveling down a two-lane road through endless palm oil plantations - the Borneo equivalent of endless Iowa corn fields - with almost no civiliztion in sight. Around that time I begain to contemplate the fact that I had gotten into a stranger's car and he was driving me out to the middle of nowhere, and the theme from "Deliverance" popped into my head. But, once again, it was just city-slicker paranoia getting the best of me.

The camp at Bilit definitely wasn't a resort, but that's a good thing because I really didn't want to spend my night in the jungle at a resort. The group consisted of me, two Dutch travelers who were there on the tail end of a three-day, two-night package, the tour guide, our cook and a couple hangers-on. It was a fairly simple operation, like something a family would throw together for some extra money from vacationers, although the tour guide was a full-time guide and the camp seemed like a full-time, serious operation. The whole trip had a very homey feel to it, though, like camping in someone's backyard, which I really enjoyed. We ran into an amazing amount of wildlife on the evening boat cruise down the Sungai Kinabatangan, including a couple tribes of macaques and proboscis monkeys, hornbills, herons, hawks, and three wild orangutans. I think we were extremely lucky to see that many orangutans on one trip. It was also enjoyable to see the small villages of houses on stilts along the Sungai Kinabatangan and the tugboats pulling work barges down the river. The reminders that people live and work on the river along with all of Borneo's unique wildlife painted a vivid portrait of what life along the Sungai Kinabatangan is really all about. We had some hope that we might see an elephant on the trip - apparently one had come out of the jungle and damaged some oil palms on a nearby plantation - but we weren't fortunate enough to spot one.

My prize close-up of a proboscis monkey in the wild
After dinner our guide took us on a night hike through the jungle around the campsite. With a high-powered flashlight he was able to spot several birds sleeping in the trees around the camp, some of which we were able to walk within feet of without disturbing. (The Dutch gentleman with us managed to snap off three flash photos of a sleeping bird without disturbing it, but unfortunately none of them were any good because his camera couldn't focus in total darkness.) The biggest surprise for me was when we found an owl roosting not thirty yards outside our campsite. I never imagined that such a big predatory bird could be resting on a stump so close to where we were sleeping without any of us being aware of it!

I was looking forward to falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle that night, but one of the nearby resorts had a live band and the bass and drums carried their way into our camp. At one point in the evening I heard a loud explosion in the distance. I asked our guide about it. "Fireworks," he told us. "The plantation owners are trying to scare the elephant back into the jungle." Yet another reminder of the slippery intersection between nature preservation and human progress in Borneo.

On the morning boat trip we spotted some more birds and a large water monitor lizard, and then it was time to return to Sandakan and fly back to Kota Kinabalu. In KK I treated myself to dinner at an Indian restaurant followed by a fresh mango lassi. Back at my guest house, I suddenly sneezed violently and realized my eyes were itching, and remembered that I had past reasons to be suspicious that I might be allergic to mangoes. In my past experience, I had spent a night with uncomfortably itchy hands and feet and that was the extent of it. This time around, I stayed in my room for a few minutes contemplating whether I could ride out the storm again without medical help before I decided that I should walk to the local drug store and try to score some antihistamines. When I stepped out of my room and looked in the hallway mirror, I realized that my lower eyelids had swollen into big, puffy lumps. I walked downstairs and mentioned to the front desk staff that I thought I was having an allergic reaction, which I'm sure they could clearly observe from my swollen eyes, and they suggested that I should visit the local 24-hour health clinic. Another guest (at the time, I had thought that the guy worked at the guest house) helped me walk to the clinic, and by the time I got there I was coughing and could feel a lot of irritation in my throat. The clinic asked if I was having trouble breathing. I thought to myself, "If I say yes, they'll probably treat me faster, but they also might do something drastic like give me a tracheotomy. Maybe I should be a little noncommittal about the breathing thing." I don't think I was ever in danger of not being able to breathe, but the whole episode was a little disturbing nonetheless. They ended up giving me two IV bottles of a steroid solution to reduce the inflammation and sent me back to the guest house with some drugs to rest. So in the end, I learned two things from the allergy attack: 1) Kota Kinabalu has competent and helpful medical services for travelers (although I'm suspicious they overcharged me for the take-home prescription), and 2) I shouldn't eat any more fucking mangoes, ever. (I'm kind of pissed off about this. I really like mangoes. Then again, I also really like breathing normally.)

Some would think that a run-in with a killer lassi might put a damper on a vacation. To be honest, it didn't help. But the end of my trip was also scheduled as a bit of an afterthought - I had one night and half a day in Penang, and then I would head back to Kuala Lumpur to retrieve my winter coat from the hotel and head back to Incheon. After two weeks on the road, I was feeling a little like I could use a vacation from my vacation. So I sprang for a real hotel instead of a guest house in Penang and only spent half a day exploring the city. Penang has an interesting history, as the main British port before the capture of Melaka from the Dutch and the rise of Singapore, and I'm sure Pulau Penang has interesting places to explore beyond the city center, but I limited myself to a walking tour of Georgetown, the city's main historic district. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion offered another chance to view the past opulence of Malaysia's Baba-Nyonya population (this time with photos allowed!), the Khoo clanhouse was quite impressive with its carved stone pillars, and I gave a big R.O.C. salute to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's former Penang home, but by this point in the trip I was beginning to feel like I had seen most of Penang's offerings before in Melaka and elsewhere. I guess no vacation can last forever.

My last hurrah, in Kuala Lumpur, was a visit to the Imbi Market to breakfast, which turned out to be a worthwhile pursuit since I hadn't experienced the real hustle and bustle of a crowded public market at the hawker centers I had been frequenting for meals. Actually, no, I take that back - my last hurrah was the Chicken Prosperity burger I had at the McDonald's at the KL airport's Low Cost Carrier Terminal. It was the special meal being offered to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai, indeed. As it turns out, the weeks preceding the Chinese New Year were a great time to visit Malaysia because every Chinatown district I stayed in was decorated for the holiday, and I even stumbled across a large Chinese New Year festival in KK with dragons and jugglers and stiltwalkers and such. It was also cool to see the way that the different ethnicities and cultures in Malaysia can share in each other's celebrations. For example, I'm pretty sure a lot of the performers at the festival in KK were Malay rather than ethnically Chinese, even though they were doing Chinese acrobatics and traditional Chinese dragon performances. In every town I went to you could walk down the street and find a Taoist or Confucian temple on one corner, a Hindu or Sikh temple just down the street, a mosque not too far away and, almost as often, a historic or modern Christian church within walking distance. I know that Malaysia's history hasn't been entirely free from conflict between different ethnicities, religions and social classes, but it was really remarkable to see a place where all these religions and ideas that seem so completely incompatible with each other sometimes in other contexts could grow up together in the same place, among the same people, and coexist together as part of the fabric of the same country. I think the world could learn a lot from Malaysia in that respect.

So, all in all, it was an amazing, incredible, amazing, life-altering, amazing trip that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to repeat. Every once in a while I would run into Europeans or Australians who were in the midst of six month adventures through Southeast Asia and elsewhere and I would always wonder how in the heck they managed to have the time and money, not to mention the stamina, to travel for six months. At the other extreme, I know that Koreans are lucky if they can string together five days of vacation in a row without getting fired, and most of them wouldn't even dare consider it. My coworkers are all fairly envious of the luxurious eight days in summer and ten days in winter of vacation (plus two extra weeks if you're renewing) stipulated in the EPIK contract for guest English teachers. (They're also not too shy about voicing that envy, since the cultural taboo that landed envy on the list of seven deadly sins in the Christian West doesn't seem to extend to Korean culture.) On the other hand, I think a lot of Westerners would be turned off by the idea of traveling halfway around the world from their friends and family if they couldn't use the job as an opportunity to see the world in their time off. (I know a lot of teachers here are also frustrated that our vacation time is limited to time when school isn't in session and dictated to some extent by the whims of the schools, which means a lot of missed weddings back home.) Back home, when I was working freelance and working as a temp, there was no such thing as vacation time - only unpredictable periods of unpaid unemployment. I'm sure when I get home and try to re-establish some kind of career for myself that there probably won't be any luxury vacations offered in the first few years. On the other hand, I discovered some things while traveling that give me hope for future adventures. For one, all these years when I heard about "backpackers" and "hosteling" I always assumed it was something that only people in their twenties could get away with doing without looking like weirdos, but I discovered in Malaysia that plenty of families, retired couples and lone travelers in midlife still carry backpacks and do the guest house circuit as a way to save money over staying in big, bland hotels. So I guess some day I can get Social Security to forward my meager benefit checks to the Philippines and I can still hop from city to city and island to island in Southeast Asia looking for the perfect bowl of curried noodles. So I've got that to look forward to. Which is nice.

Another thing that made the trip seem like an unrepeatable experience was the fact that I was shooting all my photographs on film rather than digital. I think I shot almost twenty rolls of Fuji, Kodak and Agfa (manufactured by Fuji) film negative on the trip. For the most part I got local labs to develop the negative for me while I was traveling (mostly so that I could avoid carrying exposed negative through airport security X-ray machines too many times), and I took the developed film to my local photo lab for digital scans when I got back home. There were some disadvantages to the plan - the lab I used in Kuching left some scratches and water or chemical stains on one of my rolls of negative (all my best shots of Petronas Towers, too - gaah!) and I accidentally creased a couple negatives in my backpack while I was traveling (rookie mistake - next time I'll travel with something solid to keep my negatives in so that they're protected). Finding labs was actually fairly easy in Malaysia, where enough people must still be shooting on film to keep photo processors in business, but in Singapore I couldn't find a lab that could still develop negatives in-house in a short time period for a reasonable price. If I ever do a long trip like this again where I'll be shooting a lot of film, I might find a way to ship my negatives to a photo processor in the States or elsewhere instead of depending on local labs. Then again, it's hard to know exactly where the future of shooting on silver is going. I think I first got the news of Kodak's bankruptsy filing when I was in Kuching. I know that Kodak's bankruptsy won't be the end of analog photography as we know it - most of the film I see for sale in Asia is made by Fuji, anyway - but I wonder exactly what's going to survive and what's going to be done away with when the whole Kodak bankruptsy is sorted out. For example, my favorite lab in Daegu is Kodak-branded - I certainly hope the bankruptsy doesn't disrupt their ability, as a franchisee, to continue operating.

I decided to invest in a manual film camera package instead of a digital one for several reasons: for one, I could buy a better camera package for half the money if I went analog instead of digital; I've done most of my photo and motion picture work over the years on film, so I've grown accustomed to working with it, not to mention developing a certain sense of nostalgia for it; I genuinely believe that film still offers significant techincal advantages in terms of exposure latitude and archivability; and my negative issues don't compare to issues like the ones experienced by the friend of mine who posted a desperate plea to Facebook for help retrieving 32 gigs of photos off of a malfunctioning SD card, or the friend who accidentally reformatted a hard drive with all his photos on it. I'd like to invest in a DSLR one of these days, but it probably won't be until I get back to the States and know where my next paycheck is coming from. I'm sure film will be available for artists, professionals and hobbyists for a long time, but I have to wonder for how long it will still be practical and affordable to shoot an entire vacation on film. I'd hate to be forced to leave my FM2 at home on a trip because I couldn't find anyone to process my negatives or I couldn't afford to do it. But then again, as a wise man once said (Chaucer, according to the internet), all good things must come to an end. Especially any good thing that competes with the iPhone. It's out of our hands...
Oh, one last thing - when I landed in Incheon, in winter, late at night after a long-ish flight, I was of course immediately annoyed by any and all things Korean. At immigration there were half as many windows open for foreign passport holders and the lines were twice as long. The ability to walk up to any stranger and expect to converse in English did not arrive with me on my flight from KL. Seoul Station had changed all of its ticketing machines and none of them were working. I was too late for the last train to my town and was technically expected to be at work the next morning. I bought a ticket for the 5:30 AM KTX and wandered over to the jjimjilbang near Seoul Station to rest for a few hours. I wedged my pack into a locker, stripped down naked and walked into the shower area, where I found a drunk businessman passed out asleep, completely naked, in the drying area. Later, as I was trying to relax on the hard, brick-shaped pillow and ignore the gurgles and moans of the drunks around me so that I could show up at work the next day just to save face, I realized something - Korea is a part of me now. I can't hate this place because, after two years here, I am a little Korean. It's rubbed off on me. There's no point trying to deny or despise what I am now. This place is a part of me and it always will be. When I come back here, it'll always be a homecoming of sorts.

Crap. It's after midnight and I have to be at school tomorrow to warm a desk. Koreans aren't allowed to take vacations, remember? See you later when I proofread this and edit out all the stuff about prostitutes in Singapore.

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