Archive for March, 2013

Kota Bharu

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Hostels: 10-20rm dorms; 25+ for fan; 50+ for a/c.
Food: hawker food from 1-6rm;coffee/tea 1-3rm.
Main backpacker area: around bus station.
Bus station is in the center of town, near everything.

The bus to KB was an obscene, light green jalopy; its two decks held together by sweat and suffering. It’s hard to say whether the temperature outside or inside was higher while being flung around the mountainous peril. Up until ears pressure popped, then plunging down hill, “mean green” held tight around the curves and rumbled onwards on roads carved though jungles and over rivers. The desolation turned to hovels and shanties as we neared our final destination and finally to domed roofs and the curved script of Allah.

Kota Bharu is vastly different from Penang and probably other areas in Malaysia. Nine out of ten men more than likely have a Mohammed somewhere in their names and most women are covered from nape to ankles only revealing their faces. KB lies within the conservative state of Kelantan on the eastern seaboard and is prospering independent of any tourist influence. Blue flags with white scales of justice lash on both sides of the road as does other separatist banners; the state does indeed desire independence. The language is a mutated form of Malay with Thai and Arabic influences and is absolutely undistinguishable from anything else.

All in all, KB is an acceptable place to lose a day or two on the way to island paradise simply because of the differences. Strolling around in the scorching sun, the Mosques and the other glimmering Muslim architecture are quite inviting to take a gander at. The food tosses out the Chinese influence whatsoever but the staple remains Nasi (rice) covered in some sort of thick, peppery sauce; thankfully not as sweet as Penang. The Nasi kerebu is the famed rice plate here which features a special blue colored rice dyed with local herbs. Booze is hard to come by as beer is only available in some Chinese restaurants for a mark-up. Eat at the night market and the central market for authentic fare. Down the street and left around the corner from the huge Mydin supermarket has some street stalls with fantastic fried and BBQ chicken. Food and drink here is cheaper than Penang.

Try to catch a room at KB Backpackers Lodge on the same side of the street as the bus station catty-corner from the shopping mall. Fan rooms go for 28rm and the staff are helpful and forward with any sort of info that one could possibly require. Some rooms are quite beat up and dingy so look before you pay. It’s a home-stay so expect family members lounging around in the common room. Overall comfortable digs. They also sell speed boat tickets from Kuala Besut to the Penhentian Islands 60 both ways; cheaper than some other places. Be sure to have roti canai, roti with some sauce that resembles dal, for breakfast – good place is a few shops down from KB Backpackers on the same side.

For once, I have to agree with Lonely Planet and say this place deserves a day or two to hang out in. Kota Bharu is a glimpse into Islam and its ancient culture and history: it doesn’t even require a trip to the Middle East. Special thanks goes to Brother Mohammed from Ghana who tried desperately to convince me to become Muslim – maybe you can get me to register next time.

First Stop, Penang.

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

NOTE: the Internet is pathetically slow in Malaysia, contrary to what is said online. I will post text only articles and spruce them up with photos later.

Hostels: 10-15rm Dorms, 25-30rm private room usually shared bathroom, 50+ for en suite.
Food: hawker food from 1-10rm; coffee/tea 1-5rm.
Main Backpacker area Georgetown: chulia and love lane.
From airport 2.7rm by bus and half an hour.

Penang is intriguing if not confusing. As with all Malaysia, it’s touted as a perfect blend of different cultures. Ironically, most of the folks within said cultures seem to stick with their own race. The Indians primarily hang out in the eponymous Little India district as the Chinese all buy their vegetables from the markets around Chinatown. Georgetown is the main area of interest for travelers because of the Colonial history. Finding actual Malaysians in Penang isn’t as easy as it seems. It’s a linguistically fascinating city. I took a lift in one of the glitzy shopping malls and heard 4 different languages being spoken: Mandarin, Punjab, Arabic and English.

The food situation is equally confusing. Perhaps those who don’t live in Asia view Penang as a foodie heaven; an exotic arena of culinary delight. For us asiaphiles, it just appears a different variation on the same theme. Most of the street food involves some sort of Chinese noodles either fried with varying ingredients or noodles in soup. The best bet for getting full is to search out the Indian food with the favorite restaurants being Kapitan and Naya. That stated, the street stalls are indeed frequented by travelers and locals alike. Some must eats include the Curry Mee (Mee is noodles), fried oysters, Lor Bak (deep fried meat), and the iconic Nasi goreng (rice with spicy sauce).

There are sites ad nasuem to visit from temples to beaches. We wandered about in the National Park, the Botanical Gardens, and checked out a few of the temples. There are free leaflets all over the city touting tours and guides but Georgetown, the main drag, isn’t big enough to merit it. All places worth visiting are connected by the Rapid Penang buses or walkable. Of all the places to see, spend some time at the national park. It’s free entry and has a few trails for different fitness levels; though, wildlife other than bugs and birds seemed scarce. We did see two rare, wild macaques, a pregnant female and a male, hopping across trees. City-side, an entire day could easily be used just walking around and seeing what options there are. Shopping malls around the center building Komtar can be a welcome relief from the heat even though some view it as backpacker blasphemy. They can stay outside and keep sweating…

Some words of caution: the buses that claim 30 minute intervals usually aren’t on time. If you HAVE to connect to the main bus station to get out, be at the Komtar terminal in the center at least and hour beforehand. To get out, head over to Butterworth station across the bridge. The siguom inborn bus terminal is a pointless place; most buses stop at Butterworth an hour later, anyway. Also, the sun will pummel you if unprepared. It will punch you in the face, leaving sunburn bruises and it will kick your stomach with dehydration and lethargy. The heat is simply amazing. Be sure to ask fellow travelers about hostels. Some rooms are mosquito hot boxes while others are acceptable digs but will be at similar prices.

It’s hard to recommend visiting Penang if you have waxed Colonial in the other SE Asia cities like Phnom Penh or Hoi An, Vietnam and you are only interested in aged architecture. Many of the buildings simply aren’t that old and were redone in the 1930s or so; my house in the USA was built in 1910. It’s actually a bit disconcerting to see such buildings converted to backpacker slums, street food stalls and engine repair shops.

Overall, Penang still remains a good introduction into everything Malaysia for those worried Kuala Lumpur is too much for them; consider it like M-lite. Nicely enough, it doesn’t have the slumdog feel of some of the other old Colonial style cities in neighboring countries, and it’s slow-paced enough to be annoying for those that like to move.

Border debacles.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Liu Xue, a 27 year old, illegal mother of three stood surrounded by custom officials at the Hong Kong to China border crossing exasperated and crimson-faced. “You mainlanders always cause such trouble when you come to HK,” the officer with the acne crater scars grimaced. Xue stared impotently at the official and muttered “ting bu dong” which is the common tongue for “I don’t understand.” Cantonese is the language spoken in HK, but Xue is only versed poorly in Mandarin and fluent in her native Sichuan village dialect. “How can they come here without any knowledge of Cantonese?” How are they even allowed to cross the border?”, another squat, flat faced official japed. Xue stared blankly.

China’s one-child policy prohibits Han women from giving birth to more than one child under normal circumstances. Marriage to a member of a Chinese ethnic group or being born in certain counties allows for more without penalty. Xue’s husband opened a factory that produces plastic bags more than 20 years ago and is now a Chinese 1-percenter; unreasonably rich. Their family had no qualms about paying the huge fine for having more than one child, but it is still considered illegal. This stigma only affects government workers and certain public officers perhaps even costing them their positions. Xue even managed to have her last child in Hong Kong before the government banned the behavior fearing no beds for locals to birth children. A HK newspaper incensed the mainland media last year by referring to the amazing influx of birthing, mainland women as locusts. Xue’s youngest daughter is a resident of HK, able to go to the local schools there, and can easily obtain visas to other countries; unlike her parents who only have Chinese passports.

For the past five years, Xue has visited HK about every three months and returned to the mainland with huge bags filled with all sorts of food items, cigarettes, alcohol and wine. Four years ago, they limited cigarette purchases to one carton, three years ago the same with wine and alcohol and now there is HK legislation in progress to even tax food items walked across the border. Xue normally faced no opposition and would roll two gigantic suitcases across to HK and fill them with duty free items or take the train into Mongkok for cheaper prices. Unemployed, she would sell these items on taobao, the Chinese Amazon, for a fraction of what you could get them in the mainland. Imported wine for instance is taxed between 90-200% depending on where it’s from. Yellow Tail which goes for seven dollars back in the USA can fetch more than 20 in China.

Cost isn’t the only concern as safety has become paramount in the minds of mainland Chinese citizens. Food safety scandals have become so prevalent, everyone from the lowest educated peasant to university professors have taken to fear. It’s the new underground propaganda, overshadowing the mass consciousness concepts of a Communist “harmonious society” and reverence for Chairman Mao. It’s only worsening. Most people try to avoid purchasing locally produced food if they can afford it.

Xue’s stocky frame, pillar legs and meaty arms shook as they told her the penalty for the contraband in her suitcase. As of March 2013, a 500,000 HKD or fine perhaps up to two years in prison faces those that willingly try to smuggle this certain item from Hong Kong. The customs officials cracked open her case revealing the contraband and glared at her perhaps hoping to incite some feeling of guilt. Cocaine? Heroin? The severed limb of a child? Not even close. Baby milk powder. Seriously.

Since 2008, when a batch of Mengniu milk powder left thousands of infants ill and others with permanently damaged kidneys, consumer confidence never recovered. Mainlanders abandoned the local market and began to look abroad for other options for baby formula. Hong Kong became the easiest accessible target for the Mainland Cantonese and the millions of migrant workers stuck in the factory towns of the coast. The current rule allows only two containers of milk powder per person to leave Hong Kong. Certain brands of formula had become as scarce as diamonds and demanded hour long waits in supermarkets across the island.

“Give them an inch,” another official surmised as he filled out custom forms with a fine.

On the Road…again

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Tomorrow I embark for a journey to Malaysia and where ever else the road seems the most interesting to deviate to. There’s the option to go north and revisit the majesty of Thailand or drop southeast to Indonesia. We’ll keep you posted…

I intend to first eat my way through Penang, firstly aiming at Georgetown and then we’ll see where it goes from there. Bon voyage!