Perhaps you are wondering how we chose to spend Christmas in Malaysia. The truth is, we didn’t have any better ideas. Originally, we had planned to go to India, but some recent articles about a Dengue Fever epidemic made us rethink that. I’m sure it would have been fine, and in fact I think the incidence of Dengue is higher in Thailand and Malaysia than in India, but in any case, that put us off of going to India for Christmas, and we started looking for cheap airfares from Amman.
We used my favorite airfare app, Skyscanner, to search for the best fares from Amman to anywhere in the world on December 17, and Kuala Lumpur came up as a pretty reasonable fare. We knew KL was also a big travel hub, so we could get anywhere we wanted from there, so we went ahead and booked it.
Then we found out a college friend of John’s would be in Penang, Malaysia for New Years Eve, so we made a plan to meet up with him and his family. In the meantime, we began checking on places to stay and found that because schools would be out for holidays, many places were already booking up. So we quickly made some reservations in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, an old Portuguese and later Dutch outpost on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, where we would stay for Christmas. We figured with so many western influences, there were bound to be some Christmas festivities there.
I didn’t really know what to expect of Kuala Lumpur. It’s a very large city, but it’s not overwhelming, like New York or London. Even the Petronas Towers, which for a while were the tallest buildings in the world, don’t look that big. It feels like any western city to me. Most signs and advertisements are in English first, and then maybe Malay or Chinese, even though not everyone speaks English.
There is lots of stuff everywhere. And malls everywhere. Massive malls. We went to one that was ten stories high, and included an amusement park. And food courts everywhere. Just blocks and blocks of stuff. And lots of traffic.
It’s tough to be a pedestrian in KL, or in any Malaysian city we’ve been to, because the sidewalks seem to belong to the businesses they front, and sometimes those businesses close them off. So more often than not, we find ourselves walking single file between the parked cars and the (loads and loads of) traffic.
The food is very good everywhere, but a little hard to figure out. Along the street you’ll find carts in front of restaurants where some amount of cooking is going on, which appears to be designed to bring in customers. With some pointing and nodding, and usually some amount of English spoken, you can usually come out with a nice meal. Restaurants tend to specialize in one thing. Fried noodles here, fried oysters there, tom yam soup over there, hamburgers on the next block. It’s all very casual, but because it’s specialized like this, it’s usually wonderful. And cheap. The most we’ve paid for a meal for the four of us is $40, and that was for plates full of the freshest seafood prepared to order – including some of the best soft shell crabs I’ve ever tasted (sorry Mom!).
The predominant religion in Malaysia is Islam, which is evident in the lack of pork, the sin tax on alcohol, and the women in brightly-colored scarves and ankle-length skirts. I still don’t understand how these women can cover themselves head to toe in what appears to be polyester without sweating bullets. Other religions exist in this big melting pot, though, and we’ve been to some impressive Hindu and Buddhist temples.
In KL, we climbed the very steep steps at Batu Caves, where a Hindu temple is nestled at the top. Toward the top of the stairs, the monkeys who live there began to get loud, and a few seemed to be fighting. We got out of their way. We went up to the highest temple and looked around. Stunning caves. On our way down, one of the monkeys was getting very aggressive and swatted at Magnolia’s leg, narrowly missing it. We tried to rush the girls down the stairs but Calla was frozen with fright. This one monkey was angry and bared his teeth at us. I was really afraid he was going to attack one of us, because he kept coming closer and closer. Very scary. And then some other monkeys came along and they were fighting with each other. Somehow we all made it out without a scrape or bite, but I don’t think we’ll want to hang out with the monkeys any time soon.
We took a very luxurious bus from KL to Melaka, where we would spend our Christmas. We had chosen the Oriental Riverside Guest House, which overlooked the river and had wonderful reviews. We met Amy, from Oregon, who shared some mangosteen with us. It’s a dark purple, almost black fruit, which you open by sort of pulling the skin from the top of the fruit away from the bottom midway down. The inside is segments of white flesh that surround tough seeds. You put the segment in your mouth and sort of suck and chew around the seed. It’s a nice bright sweet flavor, with just a touch of tartness.
After a quick unpacking and chat with the proprietor, Asri, and his Burmese wife LingLing, set out to explore the night market on Jonker Street nearby. We smelled the durian fruit all around us, but didn’t dare to try it yet. We went to Kathy Kitchen, a restaurant we’d read about, for Malaysian food.
The next morning, we awoke to the sound of the call to prayer from several nearby mosques. Nice voices, though. There was also a nearby musical fountain that chimed on the hour with a cheerful tune. We slept with the windows open and the fan on, and it was quite comfortable.
John and I took a walk by the river as far as we could go. We saw several large monitor lizards along the way. We stopped in a traditional Malay house in a traditional Malay village by the river. It’s a large traditional house built in 1920 or so, where the proprietor grew up as one of 12 children. Asri told us that the proprietors received money from the government to restore it in return for them keeping it open. The woman there was very nice, and pointed out interesting things around the house. I loved the open feel of it, and the rooms that opened onto each other.
On Christmas Eve, Asri told us that the kitchen was ours for the day, and he offered to take us to the grocery store. He also took us to the bus station to purchase our tickets to Georgetown. The Tesco supermarket was huge, and reminded me of a super Walmart.
As soon as we got back to the guest house, we started peeling and chopping vegetables for our traditional Gosh Awful Soup. (It’s really Kartoffelsuppe, but someone in my family started calling it Gosh Awful soup years ago, and it stuck.) I found all the ingredients except for turnips, which is my favorite part of the soup, but John picked up a lotus root instead (or maybe it was arrowroot? Not sure, but it smelled kind of turnip-y so we went with it). Magno searched online for instructions on making cookies on the stovetop, because we just had to have ginger cookies. We also made Chocolate Chip cookies and some no-bake pecan pie balls with dates and walnuts, since we couldn’t find pecans.
I brought my laptop to the kitchen to play Christmas carols while we cooked. It was hard to get the heat low enough to avoid burning the cookies, which came out like (mostly burned) cookie pancakes, but no one had a problem eating them. Some Chinese guests in the hostel were thrilled to eat the chocolate chip cookies.
We ate our soup, along with some stovetop cheese rounds that John had made, with much greater success than my cookies. Everyone declared it delicious. After dinner, we went for a short walk along the river. A bird, who had apparently been eating berries and waiting for just the right moment, pooped on my head and arm, leaving a dark purple yuckiness. John cleaned me up with his hanky and we continued on our way. That means good luck, right?
There were a few fireworks that seemed to come either from Chinatown or the west end of Jonker walk. We considered trying to find a church service to go to, but the girls really didn’t want to go to midnight mass, which was about the only option left to us when we were finally ready to go.
We watched It’s a Wonderful Life and then listened, per our tradition, to Louis Armstrong recite The Night Before Christmas. We had been worried that it wouldn’t sound the same without the record player, but the version we heard had some nice snaps and pops to it.
Calla was really sad and missing her friends and family. I hugged her until she could fall asleep.
On Christmas morning we woke up and there were presents under the tree. Santa had come and filled the hats we had hung for him, and he had eaten the cookies and drunk the milk. The reindeer weren’t too keen on the carrot, though. Maybe they were full.
We had some French toast for breakfast and then went out for a walk. Some things were open. A few people wished us Merry Christmas as we walked around. We were trying to find a place to get Christmas pedicures, but could only find foot massages, which we didn’t really want to do without having the pedicures first.
We went for tandoori chicken at a place Asri recommended. I’ve never seen the tandoor ovens in action. It’s like a big clay barrel with a fire inside, and chickens on skewers are baked inside in a circle. And with the naan, they stick it to the inside of the barrel until it’s done!
To round out our Christmas night, we watched A Christmas Story on my computer.
On the day after Christmas, Calla told us she’d like to achieve her recently-declared goal of sleeping until noon, so we let her. We took a bus to the Portuguese settlement, a neighborhood where, um, the descendants of the Portuguese settlers live. As I’d feared, it had a sort of hungover feel to it. A cabdriver had told me that on Christmas night they party until 3am there with lots of drinking. It’s really just a few blocks of single-family houses, all decorated for Christmas, with a big food pavilion at the end facing (but not close enough to feel it) the sea. The restaurants are known by their numbers. Asri had recommended #2, which was closed, and #9 which was only open for dinner, and the one without a number before #1, which we couldn’t find. #5 was the only one open, so we ordered some sambal squid and a steamed fish. It was pretty pricey, compared to other places, and we weren’t sure how it would be, plus we were short on cash, so we only ordered the two things, which was plenty. I also had a lime and sour plum juice, which was delicious. I can’t get enough of the sour plum!
On the way back from Portuguese square, we stopped by the maritime museum, which is housed in a model of a Portuguese trading ship. I was hoping it would show the inner workings of the ship, but it was primarily a history museum. Interesting history, though. The city was a successful trading port for hundreds of years, until the Portuguese came along around 1500 and tried to control it too tightly with taxes and monopolies etc. Then the Dutch took over and kept the taxes high to try to drive port traffic to another of their nearby ports. Then the British. Then independence.
Stopped along Jonker Street again on the way, and took a different street home, which took us by the oldest Buddhist temple in the country, and a beautiful mosque. Who knew it was just a block from our hotel?
We packed up in the evening, took down our Christmas decorations, and got ready for our trip to Penang.
Much as in Istanbul, we had sort of a food obsession in Malaysia. The food in Georgetown, Penang, where we rang in the New Year, is quite good, and cheap, and there were many local specialties we wanted to try.
One day we went in search of a seafood restaurant John had read about in the Guardian. They haven’t steered us wrong yet. After a few false starts, we found it, right across the street from the ferry terminal and bus station. The place was fantastic. You pick out the seafood you want, tell them how you want it cooked, and go sit down. A drinks waiter comes by to take your drink order, and you pay him right away. They bring some plates, forks, spoons, chopped spicy peppers, wontons, and a curry sauce. Then a big pot of rice then comes the seafood. We ordered fried soft shell crab, which was battered in what tasted like a lightly spiced dhal batter – perfectly crispy and delicious – great with the spicy peppers. The sweet and sour prawns were beautiful, but not to my taste. I would get them with garlic next time. And a cute little steamed fish. Also some mixed vegetables, which we’ve been missing. We sat in a brick room in back that seemed to have survived a fire, with a corrugated plastic roof above and a nice fan right next to us to cool us down. Loved it.
One night John went out to get us some “quick” dinner and was gone for more than an hour. He had tried to go to the noodle man just down the block from our hotel, but he seemed to have closed for the night, so he wandered along some streets we’d been down before, and ended up at the Red Market where he ordered some noodles. It was so busy it took him 30 minutes to get them, though, so he was pretty haggard by the time he got back. The noodles were delicious, though, and later that night we watched some of Anthony Bourdain’s episode about Penang, which featured that market, so I think he felt better about doing it.
Other than food, there are some interesting things to see and do in Georgetown.
While we waited for our Thai visas to be processed one day, we went to visit a couple of Buddhist Temples – one Burmese, one Thai. The Burmese one was pretty somber, with paintings depicting the life story of the Buddha, and statues of the Buddha from around Asia. Across the street, the Thai temple was rather more… crass, with signs saying, if you pray to this Buddha, you will gain wealth and fame. This one is for doing well on tests. That one was pretty funny, though – people had brought their exam schedules and pinned them to lit candles before the statue.
Another day we walked to the Chew Jetty to see where clan families still live on stilt houses built along a jetty. There was some construction going on on one, where we could see just how DIY the whole operation is. The pilings were made of concrete-filled buckets stacked one on top of another. It was nice to be on the water, even if it felt a little rickety. It is so strange to us that Malaysia is so warm and surrounded by water but has very few beaches, and even fewer that you can swim in, because the water quality is so bad. We’re looking forward to Thailand, where we can enjoy some beach time with this hot weather!
One of John’s college friends, who was traveling around Asia with his family for three months, happened to be in Georgetown at the same time, so we arranged to ring in the new year with them by the waterfront. There were some somber Malaysian hard rock bands playing, not doing a very good job of warming up the non-drinking and mostly rather bored-looking crowd. As soon as midnight hit, the fireworks went off, and everyone went home. A pretty low-key celebration. We hadn’t managed to find any champagne, or anything similar, so we all wandered back to our hotels.
New year’s day was a different story. I don’t know if it should mean anything, but the first day of 2013 was full of critters. We walked to a Buddhist temple where people were purchasing pairs of birds to release for good luck. All the kids wanted to do it, so we did. We later learned this is a practice that animal activists are trying to discourage, but at the time, we just thought it would be a nice symbol of setting your dreams free or something like that.
Since the next year in the Chinese calendar will be the year of the snake, we visited the Snake Temple and neighboring Snake Farm. We followed the tradition (probably made up by the people who own the snake farm) of stroking the giant yellow pythons from head to tail for good luck. Calla spent some time making friends with the monkey at the snake farm, trying to get over the fears remaining after our Batu Caves experience.
Our last critter encounter of the day (if you don’t count the Tiger beer offered to us by an old man on the Chew Jetty) was sharing the sidewalk with dozens of rats on our walk home to the hotel. Not normally a welcome sight, but after all the other animal action of the day, it seemed like a fitting and end to the first day of the year.