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What to eat in KL

February 24, 2010 2 comments

This deals only with the most vital and important part of travel (and no, this isn’t a lesson in how to use the toilet in South Asia–you folks can ask independently about that): FOOD!

Kuala Lumpur recalls the idea of “salad bowl” diversity, as many of my UCSB professors liked to use to counter the “melting pot” idiom.  In this case, I think we can get away with calling it simply “the wok”.  The city includes a mixture of Indian, Chinese (mostly from the South–Hong Kong, Guangdong and Fujian) and Ethnic Malays and therefore reflects the cuisine of each place both separate and simmering in one anothers juices.  Snap.

First, Teh Tarik was certainly good, kind of like a warm milk tea that one could find in China, except without the tang of too many chemicals.  While we drank, a few drops of rain began to fall, and immediately the sidewalk cafe full of people picked up their plates and re-settled inside seconds before an extremely heavy downpour washed the sidewalks and left the smell of wet blacktop in the air. 

For breakfast, Usha’s roommate Anu took me to what looked like a barn that had pillars in place of walls.  Food stalls of all kinds circled the center court, kind of like a free standing mall food court without Dominos and the like.  She ate something that I also tried later that afternoon called Nasi Lemak.  If you’ve ever had Malaysian food (other than Nasi Goreng–fried rice), this is likely what you had.  It’s super moist chicken (though sometimes other meats) with dried anchovies and peanuts with a side of steamed rice that’s been soaked in coconut cream.  You can find it in a lot of places wrapped in a purse like bundle in a banana leaf.  I just ate it on its own.

I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the flavor that the dried anchovies brought to the dish, not usually being someone who enjoys fish all that much.  This time their beady little lifeless eyes struck no fear whatsoever into me, except perhaps, the fear that they may once have been employed at a local foot spa, eating dead skin from in between the toes of tourists.

Usha, who has Sri Lankan heritage, brought me to a neighborhood in Bangsar that is famous for its Apum, an Indian crepe-style dessert.  I spoiled my dinner with it, though, which was ok–we went to Chinese food afterwards.  The Apum was not much to look at–a lot of brown sugar melted on top of a pastry at the bottom of a stainless steel bowl, but it was the perfect blend of starch, sugar, and butter.  What more could I ask for?

Usha was busy for most of the week working on a book about campaign finance (she is a proper grown up and has a proper job…maybe proper isn’t the word…), so Anu was my host in most of the adventures I took.  The week was mostly spent in the city lounging, as it was extremely hot and I was down to my last couple hundred ringet.  As soon as I’d been ushered into the house, however, a tense moment erupted between Usha and Anu.

“You should take her to the Baba-Nyona part of Malacca, and while you’re there you should try the chicken rice balls,” Usha said, half to Anu, half to me.

“What are those?”  I asked.  I knew that chicken rice was as simple as it sounded–pieces of well seasoned chicken in thick sauce with rice.  But balls?

“They make the balls out of glutinous rice-lah, you know, sticky rice?”  ‘Rice-lah’ isn’t any different than normal rice.  Malaysians just say “lah” a lot at the end of English words.  Kind of the same way we say “like.”

“Yes, with a lot of butter,” Anu said.

“Noooo-lah, they don’t make them with butter,” Usha said.

“Yes they do,” Anu said, “they do make it with butter.”

Etc…until

“Ok, Emily, now you have to go to Malacca and find out,” Usha said.

Anu and I took a road trip to Malacca, two hours to the south, during which time I splurged on a mint-chocolate chip shake from Baskin Robbins.  They don’t have that in China.  Don’t judge me.  After walking around the brick block ruins of St. Paul’s church, we found another food court, and the chicken rice balls right up front.  No butter.  They’re just steamed with lots and lots of water.

The final night I had Char Kuay Teow with Usha, which is an improved version of Chinese fried flat noodles with shellfish throughout.  Then, of course, I had to try Satay.  It only looked like meat on a stick at first glance–something I have all the time in China–so I was hesitant to waste a meal on it.  As it turned out, though, I was still peckish after the Char Kuay Teow and tried a little bit.  It didn’t have the same lemony kick as Chinese barbeque, but rather had a bit of a fruity sweetness in the marinade.  I was really glad that I didn’t miss out on that opportunity.

Even as Usha’s friend Ramesh picked me up in his cab the next day to take me to the airport, I was finishing the last of a Kopi Cao, a really strong local coffee mixed with condensed milk.

I lost somewhere near fifteen pounds when I moved to China due to the lack of dairy products and various other unpleasantries.  I don’t think I gained all of it back…no not all of it.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Blog Before Teh Tarik

February 17, 2010 1 comment

The bus from Georgetown to Kuala Lumpur was nothing like the standing-room, air-conditioner drip of Khao-Lak/Surat Thani, or like the 2am delayed on a train platform of Surat Thani to Butterworth.  We clambored up, after a couple of days of Tandoori and a visit to the butterfly farm and sat, amazed on the brightly colored cushion, under the overblowing air conditioner vent and zoned out to a fishing video on silent.

“You’re not allowed to go anywhere alone here,” Brian said a couple nights before as we walked down Jalan Jalia (Jalan=Street in Malay) and saw the gawks I was getting.  They weren’t the same LA WAI (FOREIGNER!!) ones we get in China, but something more akin to BOOBIES!!  We would’ve walked on the sidewalk, had there been one.  Instead there were big open gutters that dropped about a meter from the pavement.

When I’d opened the room, the man at the desk had said, “I see you have two single beds.  We have doubles available if you want.”

“Twins will be fine,” I said.

He paused, looking from me to Brian.

“Really, it’s no problem, I can give you one bed.”

“No thank you,” I said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.  The leader of the Political Opposition is currently in the midst of a sodomy trial (which my politically active Malaysian friends insist is just a ploy to ruin his career).  I figured I’d just have to let this guy think I was frigid.

KL, though, has not given the same vibe in any way.  English is spoken widely and well by many people, the streets are clean and the buildings are air conditioned.

We arrived on the 13th, my birthday, and Brian had sprung for a beautiful hotel room as a gift–across the street was a full sized mall complete with Starbucks, Kenny Rogers Roasters (???), and HALLELUJAH!  A full sized Borders Book Store almost completely filled with English books (I bought 3 to ration for the next couple months in China).  The taxi drivers were not negotiators, we bought low priced tickets at stands and were deposited safely and in a timely fashion at whatever destination we had asked.  It’s funny how much I’d taken things for granted.

It’s also funny how quickly it started to bore me.

Usha met us on my birthday and took us out for dinner and drinks.  I met Usha two years ago in Copenhagen when we were both volunteering at the Danish Red Cross.  She’s the first international friend that I’ve visited in her own home country, and will hopefully not be the last.

“Where are you staying when Brian goes home?” She asked me.

“Probably I’ll find another hostel,” I said.  I was worried about him leaving me alone in the land of gawking men, and unsure of where to find interesting things to do in such a modern yet unfamiliar city.

“Well if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch, you can just stay with me,” she said.

Just what I’d been dying to hear!

Brian went back to Zhuhai yesterday afternoon and I have already spent a night and a day with Usha and her roommates.  We’re meeting across the street for Teh Tarik (or “pulled tea”) in about fifteen minutes.  I’ll be sure to let you know all about it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Meanwhile, Back in Surat Thani

February 10, 2010 2 comments

“Temple!  Temple!  Temple!  HA–34 POINTS!”

I couldn’t determine the accent of the couple next to us, but they were definitely speaking English.  Crammed in the front of the bus from Khao Lak, scoring one point for every bird-house like construction that they saw standing in front of a house.  They’re not exactly temples, I kept biting back.  They’re actually called “Spirit Houses”, and are used to keep any and all ghosts/poltergeists/demons sheltered and out of the house.  The more people who have died in any given spot, the bigger the Spirit House.  They come in bright colors, and are gilded in the clawed style of Thai Temples.

“SPIRIT HOUSE!” may’ve been a difficult thing to shout, though…every time they yelled “temple!”, a drop of water from the leaky air conditioner landed on Brian’s shoulder.

“Temple!……Temple!”

The final day and a half in Khao Lak was beautiful, but we’d gotten antsy again.  After our wade across the lagoon, one of the workers of the Sunset Bar rushed from the beach hut to summon Nop, who brought us a tray of 4  squid.  They’d just been pulled out of the ocean, and their skin was flashing from purple to white and every hue in between.  Nop told us that’s how we could tell it was fresh.  He cooked two for us with lemony spices with sauteed cabbage, onion, and carrots.  We could barely finish.

“Three people on a motorcycle!  46 points!”

Saddlesore yesterday, we left the bikes beside the Amsterdam Resort workers, who were cracking open shells on the bricks outside the computer room.  We walked two blocks to the International Tsunami Museum.  It was little more than two skinny stories with a few presentation boards with facts and photos, a small laptop with seismic readings and a horrifying video of the wave coming in, but it was extremely effective.  It’s been six years already, but the memory is still poignant, and the results are observable in the sparse population, the construction outlets, and the under-utilized, but beautiful beach.  Most of the facts about the incident can be found online.  One thing I didn’t know, that I think is worth sharing, is that the earthquake that set the waves in motion also moved the North Pole by an inch. 

I realized that I was more shaken by the visit to the Tsunami Museum than by my visit to Auschwitz two years ago, which was confusing.  But then, for something like the Holocaust, one can focus anger on the evil people who were the cause and the perpepuation.  I can’t hate the ocean, or fault lines, so the feelings are a little more conflicted…

“Temple…Temple….MONKEY ON A MOTORCYCLE!!!”

We lurched forward to look as the bus passed a man riding a moped down the left side of the road, literally with a monkey clinging to its back. 

Our train will get here after midnight.  We’re sipping fountain drinks in the internet cafe surrounded by Thai teenage boys playing computer games.  We’ll arrive in Penang, Malaysia tomorrow morning at noonish.  Before that, though, we’ll try to squeeze in one last Pad Thai.

Perfection (barring jellies and tsunamis)

February 8, 2010 4 comments

We knew when we were herded onto the open truck with a couple of Poles and all of our gear that we weren’t getting to Khao Lak that night.  The bus station, as the man at the Surat Thani information desk had warned us, was an overpriced Tourist Agency that didn’t even sell tickets to our location.  We had gone irrevocably downtown away from the bus station, and by that point so had the sun.

We crossed the street in a bit of a huff, I refused to pay the cab driver (and miraculously got away with it–possibly because we stomped away while he hassled the Poles).  There, however, we were drawn back to another agency where a polite woman named Ahn convinced us to spend the night at a low cost backpacker hostel and then take the 7am bus the next day.

Surat Thani is like the Kettleman City of Southern Thailand, albeit slightly larger.  It’s a juncture from which one can head to a multitude of different spots of interest.  It’s got the cheap In&Out burgers (or Pad Thai, rather), but it doesn’t have much else.  We lay in the hostel watching a Jessica Alba movie until we fell asleep.  It was a bit of a disappointment, as we’d been on the train from Bangkok for eight hours that day and had spent our final day in Bangkok in air conditioned markets or indoors hiding from the rabid street vendors and Ladyboys.  In our defense, though, Zhuhai does not have the National Geographic channel.

So until today we had been feeling a bit disillusioned, a bit tired of temples and pretending to pray to gods we didn’t feel any connection to, and a bit disappointed in ourselves as travelers.  We got on the bus, and fell right back to sleep.

Five hours later we got off the bus and were in Paradise.  I mean the city of Khao Lak on the Southwest Coast of Thailand.  We’d read about it on travelfish.com and seen that it was very small, friendly, and was trying to recover from the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.  If ever there was an opposite to Bangkok, this was it.  We sat down in the “D-Time Bar” where the servers saw our backpacks and immediately called our hotel for us.

As we sat, sipping cool drinks and staring at the emerald-green mountains, a lanky farang (foreigner) with a fanny pack stalked up to us.

“You speak English or Sprechen sie deutcshe?”  He told us that he was Kees and would be taking us to the Amsterdam Resort.

Don’t let “Resort” fool you–I’m far from a high roller.  What we got was a simple bungalow with a fan and a mosquito net.  We did find out, however, that Kees is in charge of the place itself.  He likes to sit at a table in the center of the open-air restaraunt giving free travel advice and adding up totals on a clacky-keyed calculator.

We ran straight into the ocean, and then straight back out, after Brian was stung by a jellyfish.  After that incident we decided to take it easy and wade across the lagoon to a beach shack called the Sunset Bar, where we sat, quietly, until sunset.  Nop, the owner, came to us with a brown paper folder full of before and after pictures from the tsunami.  He apparently, had the bar for years before.  There had once been evergreen trees surrounding it.  There had not been any lagoon.

We promised to come back, tonight, for dinner.

Brian and I spent the day cycling on the left side of the road to witness white sand beaches and step over dead jellies lying in beds of shells.  Tomorrow we’re going to hike to a waterfall.  Right now, though, we’ve got a date with Nop, a Sunset, and squid.

Suck on that, Bangkok.

Thailanding

February 3, 2010 3 comments

So what brings me to the biggest tourist magnet this side of the equator, complete with crowded temples, gem scams, commodified everything and ambiguous cultural genuineness?  Well…I’m just a TA getting paid Chinese wages.  What did I expect–the glitz and expense of Tokyo?  It’s my second night on the tourist circuit of Thailand/Malaysia, I’ve seen more white people here and heard more English than I have since I was in Hong Kong during October.  It’s got its merits, some of which I’ve really enjoyed, and some of which I’m still trying to figure out.

So here’s a breakdown on Bangkok so far:

A.  I’m traveling with my friends Jim and Brian, and we’re staying at what has turned out to be the gayest hotel in Bangkok.  There’s a twenty four hour internet cafe with art deco windows and amazing pad thai on the bottom floor.  Working boys are sitting at every table that a leering white man is not.  One of our Chinese friends met up with us today–Jimmy–my age and incredibly bright and cute–and he was trying to ignore the wrinkled stares.  Or at least laugh it off.

B.  We hopped a package trip today that was arranged by the omnipresent concierge at our front desk.  We should have known by the diamond shaped diagram on the back that we would be rushed through all of the colorful tiled spiers and solid gold Buddhas (including the 5500 kg and one 46m long reclining, and one in a temple made of Carrara marble) and shuttled through a gem shop.  Every guidebook I’ve ever read from Thailand has sworn me away from these places…but here we were, uncomfortably trying to shake off the overeager saleswoman and find the exit.  We just grit our teeth, waited for a shuttle and stared at sharks as they circled a tank in the center of the showroom.

C.  Our new Thai friend, Ken, has been accompanying us everywhere and helping us with translation.  He’s a chef about 100km south in Pattaya, and today he took us through a knot of street food stalls into a teal lunchroom, complete with stacks of Pepsi crates and posters of the King in his smart glasses and side part.  We had plates and plates of chicken livers, duck meat and fats, bean sprouts atop spicy noodles and coconut milky soups.  We’d been canistered inside of the Gem-scam van all day with no food, and we were happily sated.  Walking amongst the buckets of steaming ingredients, the soup pots, and the barbecue stalls, I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of No Reservations, complete with local “fixer”, dark dining rooms, and offal.

D.  Last night we went to the red light district.  I don’t want to make this too graphic, but I definitely saw some things that I never want to see again, and got a ping pong ball shot at my leg from a place a ping pong ball should never be.  Chandy (what we’ve been calling our co-workers Chad and Andy) who had been staying at the same hotel as us, sat next to me in silent horror.  Our mutual friend, my travel mate Brian, managed to violate most Thai tabboos, lifting his legs up and showing the bottom of his feet, laughing and dancing so uproariously that he was the first one accosted by tip jars (which didn’t confuse anyone but him), and attempting to take a picture as he stood, quite literally under the “NO PICTURE.  NO DVD.” sign in blacklight paint.  The photo was blurry, but it would’ve shown us all with our mouths in the shape of “NOOOO!”

So that’s it for now.  I’ll try to blog every few days so as not to get too behind.  If you have any advice for what to do while I’m in Thailand, let me know.  All I really know is that I’m heading South from Bangkok, and want to be in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia by Chinese New Year to see my friend Usha 🙂