Greetings bloglings! Yesterday I returned from a 17-day adventure in Malaysia and then the Philippines, where I soaked in the sun, trekked in the jungle, explored developing cities, and of course indulged in fantastic meal after meal.
Jan 14-18: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia –> Jan 18-21: Penang, Malaysia –> Jan 21-25: Manila, the Philippines –> Jan 25-31: Boracay, the Philippines
I don’t know quite how to start describing the last 2 weeks but as Fraulein Maria says, the beginning is a very good place to start.
January 14-18: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We flew from Incheon Airport to Kuala Lumpur on a late night flight, arriving in KL early morning. One word to describe this city: diverse. It was a nice break from the homogeneity of South Korea, the second most homogenous country in the world after North Korea. There are 3 major ethnic groups, all fitting under the Malaysian national identity: Indians, Chinese, and Malay. Each group practices its own religion, speaks its own language, and eats its own cuisine. From the locals I met, I learned that there are struggles amongst the differing racial groups politically, but on the ground people generally seem to tolerate one another’s differences and live together in a uber-metropolistic harmony. The existence of these 3 ethnic groups made for some amazing site-seeing throughout the city. We had the opportunity to see Buddhist temples (getting ready to celebrate the lunar New Year), intricate and brightly colored Hindu temples (one of the friends I travelled with is Hindu, which made the experience extra special), and gorgeous old mosques, frequented by the Malay population. It also made for some of the best culinary experiences of my life! KL is a quickly developing city, and some districts are filled with gigantic skyscrapers, Starbucks, and Citibanks…like the KLCC neighborhood which houses the gorgeous Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world. It’s obvious that the city is eager to become labeled as a “developed” Asian city, judging from signs proclaiming goals for “full-development by 2020.” But there are also neighborhoods we visited that could be described as slums, with make-shift plumbing systems and scrap metal shacks. One neighborhood we visited, Kampung Baru, just north of the towers, is a Malay neighborhood that will soon be demolished to make way for more skyscrapers. We were informed that this neighborhood is one of the last of its kind, and it was definitely a unique little place. The most impressive site to be seen in KL is definitely the Batu Caves, 400-million-year-old rock formations that are unlike any natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a gigantic, golden Hindu shrine and 272 steps leading up to the caves’ entrance. Half of the caves have been utilized as a Hindu prayer site since the 1870s, while the other half is now maintained by the local government as a site of natural history. The Batu Caves managed to both impress and disappoint simultaneously, because while their magnificent natural beauty is so awesome, the religious site is very poorly kept. There was trash all over, graffiti, and kitchy souvenir shops inside the caves. However, for an extra $10 we were given an excellent tour of the majestic, gigantic other half, which was totally clean and filled with bats! Visit Kuala Lumpur if you are in southeast Asia – I wish we had more time in this dynamic city!
January 18-21: Penang, Malaysia
Definitely my favorite stop on the trip, Penang is jam-packed with colorful, new things to see, do, and eat. Penang is one of the 13 states in Malaysia, and typically regarded as the most socially progressive of all. We stayed in the capital city of Georgetown, which houses some of the best preserved colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. Penang is famous for its food, and thank god a typical meal cost between $2-$5 because we ate so many of them. We spent a few days meandering around the city, checking out gorgeous Buddhist temples and Hindu temples, as well as exploring Georgetown’s Chinatown. We left Georgetown for a few days to embark upon some jungle trekking, where I learned the difference between a jungle and a forest is that a jungle has much more diversity. Our guide took us on a hike through the jungle, pointed out a few things but mostly just aided in our wandering and helped us break away from the beaten trail. We then took a boat ride around the northwestern shoreline of Penang to a turtle rehabilitation center, and then to Monkey Beach, a beach that was literally infested with monkeys! The highlight of our stint in Penang, however, has to be the time we spent at the Unique Penang Art Gallery with our new friends Clovis and Joey. I wandered into their gallery, which was filled with awesome photography and paintings, across the street from our hostel. They had a project going on where you could send out postcards designed by kids from their art class, and choose which day of the year you’d like it to be sent! I spent some time talking with the artists, who invited my friends and I to a dinner party at the gallery later in the night! It ended up being a Chinese cooking class, where we learned how to make Steamboat Soup, a traditional dish for the Chinese New Year (not something I could ever eat in a restaurant, since it’s a special holiday dish), and talked about life in Penang, the growing tourism there, and Clovis & Joey’s art studio! They liked us all enough that we went back for round #2 the next night and made sushi together! A unique experience indeed. Again, another place I wish I could spend so much more time in – highly recommend checking out Penang!
January 22-25: Manila, the Philippines
Manila was an unexpectedly awesome city, which I knew pretty much nada about upon arrival. Unfortunately, I was dealing with a minor bout of food poisoning, picked up somewhere in Malaysia, so my experiences for the second leg of our trip were slightly tarnished by a fever, throat infection, and stomach issues. But, “bahala na” as they say in the Philippines (my friend & travel buddy Mikayla got a tatoo with the expression written in traditional Philipino script!), whatever will be will be – I rolled with the punches and made the best of it. We were lucky on 2 fronts in Manila. #1: My friend Shruthi’s uncle has a condo in Manila, in the chic neighborhood of Makati, where we were able to stay FO’ FREE! #2: Our friend-of-a-friend, Kcia Jacob – now our friend! – served as a delightful tour guide around her hometown! She took us to the university she attended, which happens to be the oldest university in the Philippines, the University of Santo Tomas, a campus with beautiful old Spanish architecture. We ventured to Quiapo, the busiest market I’ve ever experienced in my life, selling everything from neon-dyed baby chicks to Facebook imprinted flip-flops. For the Chinese New Year, we hit up Manila’s Chinatown, which was another throbbing marketplace oozing with people, colors, and dragons. The most intriguing aspect of Manila, overall, had to be the fact that we visited right in the middle of this country’s economic development. Like Kuala Lumpur, many parts of the city are shiny, big, and metal and there is a massive amount of construction taking place everywhere. (From the balcony of our condo, we counted 19 different cranes in the skyline!) But there is severe poverty throughout the city as well, evidenced by the droves of small children who would approach us begging for money and food. It was heart wrenching to turn them down, so most of the time I would run into a convenience store and buy them some food, since I had no idea where that money would actually be going. (All of us were instantly reminded of the slumlords depicted in Slumdog Millionaire.) Manila was also filled with old, beautiful Spanish architecture dating back to the Spanish colonial era. We hit up the Intramuros neighborhood which includes a Spanish fortress, among other buildings, as well as a museum talking about the history of Chinese Filipino population. We also spent a day outside the city exploring the Tagaytay volcano, which was a gorgeous natural site to see. A small river exists inside the crater where the volcano erupted in 1911, and we were able to ride horses to the top to check it out.
Another overarching impression of Manila was just how “Americanized” the city feels. The wide avenues, American cars, the jeepneys [by FAR my favorite part of Manila, jeepneys are the result of thousands of jeeps leftover from the American occupation that have been tricked out by their drivers and now serve as the main mode of transport – you just hop on and hop off wherever you want, and it cost 8 pesos…about $.18…to go wherever you want! Probably would never been able to figure out their routes without Kcia to help us!] and the fact that everyone speaks perfect English are all remnants of the American colonialism that officially ended here after WWII. Kcia explained to us that while the Spanish were in charge, they didn’t teach the native population any Spanish, in order to keep the masses uneducated and at bay. But under American occupation, schools were opened, English was taught, and they were promised eventual freedom. Although some ulterior economic motives existed, we actually had a lasting impact that Americans should be proud of, in some respects. Hurrah!
January 25-31: Boracay, Philippines
Ah. The last leg of our journey – I can’t think of a more suitable way to end an incredible trek throughout Southeast Asia. We arrived at Frendz Resort, the most chilled-out, easy-going “beach resort” I’ve ever seen, and immediately cancelled our plans to visit Cebu and Bantayan, 2 other Philippine islands. We were steps away from the beach for 5 days straight, and everything cost next to nothing. Apparently, Boracay is ranked the #2 beach destination in the world on TripAdvisor, because of its gorgeous white beach, and I was lucky enough to see why. Usually our days consisted of waking up around 9, hitting the beach until we turned red, eating dinner and hanging at the hostel, then dancing till our sunburns started to hurt. The perfect way to end a truly eye-opening journey.
We totally lucked out and ended up staying at fantastic hostels. I have to give props to all of them – highly recommended to anyone visiting these places!