Sunday, August 31, 2014 0 comments

Would YOU try it?

While I was enjoying my Fried Koay Teow, I glanced up at the poster hanging above my table.  At first it seemed to be ordinary iced tea (which Malaysia thankfully has an abundance of--and peach tea, and passion fruit green tea!), but then I read closer...seaweed in my tea? It does promise all sorts of benefits...I might have tried it just for the novelty, but I already had iced green apple juice.  Would you try it?

Char Koay Teow

Penang is famous for its food--and that might be putting it mildly.  Part of the reason is the astounding variety: long being an important trade stop for merchant ships, the city's population is a grand mixture of cultures.  There are the native Malay peoples, Chinatown, Little India, as well as smaller groups from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Armenia, and Europeans from the days of British colonialism.  Added to that, Penang isn't too far from the Thai border... It seems on nearly every street you can find several of the above cuisines or an interesting combination thereof.

Besides seeing the famous mansions, temples, and colonial buildings, trying the local specialties is part of the traveler experience in Penang.  As I entered the old fort earlier in the day, I passed a rack of brochures and picked up one about Penang food.  It helpfully describes and shows pictures of various dishes, as well as giving a list of restaurants known to serve a delicious (it's hard for me to write that word seriously anymore; it's so overused by my Chinese students) version of each, and a map showing where all these restaurants are located. 

From the pictures, I chose Char Koay Teow for tonight's adventure.  After a bit of confusion (the map they so kindly provided wasn't exactly accurate...), I stumbled upon one of the recommended establishments, Ho Ping Cafe. It was little more than street food with tables and drinks in glasses instead of bottles. To save myself a bit of mental strain, I'll just quote the brochure's description:

"The ever fragrant, garlicky and rich Penang Char Koay Teow holds a revered place in the hearts of foodies all over Malaysia.  Around the world you can find Char Koay Teow eateries bearing the title 'Penang Char Koay Teow' in hopes of trying to woo in customers based on the promise of a morsel of Penang's famous street food.  The secret behind a plate of heavenly Char Koay Teow relies on the heat of the wok: the higher the heat, the tastier the koay teow.  The flat rice noodles are fried in an iron cast wok over very high heat to be able to achieve a slightly charred and smoky aroma.  Oil is added into the wok followed by a small amount of minced garlic and fresh prawns. Noodles are added in, followed by a dash of seasoned soy sauce, bean sprouts, egg and chives.  The last ingredient is the cockles.  Some outlets include crunchy bits of lard and slices of pork sausage in their Char Koay Teow, so look out for the halal sign [many Malaysians are Muslim, and thus don't eat pork] before making your order. With big prawns, each plate costs from RM7 to RM9."

I did enjoy mine, although it wasn't quite as flavorful as I'd hoped. I think it needed a bit more garlic and maybe a slightly hotter wok. Then again, I paid only 5 ringgits, less than the brochure predicted. I left behind the cockles on the plate, but everything else blended well.  Char Koay Teow (I'm really getting rather tired of typing that) is an enjoyable and filling dinner, but not oh-my-goodness-I-can't-stop-eating-this level. 
Saturday, August 30, 2014 0 comments

New Second Best

Sooo...remember that bus I rhapsodized about the other day? I declared it the second-best I'd ever been on, but today it must take a demotion to third.  I'm sitting on yet another bus
(after already spending several hours on a van and another bus already today--Taman Negara and Penang having unfortunately turned out to not be terribly well connected), waiting to leave.  This one also follows the luxurious trend of having only three seats across rather than four, and everything seems sparkling new.  The. curtains are a tasteful red and gold--but apparently, even for the most well-appointed buses, bus seats only come in garish prints, this one bright red with neon...I don't even know what you would call those markings.  But you can see for yourself in the pictures...
Monday, August 25, 2014 0 comments

2nd Best Bus of All Time

Look at this bus! Okay, maybe don't look that hard; that fabric might blind you--but still, I have a recliner for a seat! And the bus is due to leave in a minute and a half, and there are a grand total of six people on here, including the driver.  At the ticket booth the guy let me pick my seat, so I chose one towards the back, knowing that if someone doesn't express a preference the ticket agents fill from the front.  So, I have the entire back two-thirds of the bus to myself.  I feel like I ought to unpack a bit to take advantage of all this space. 

I think I rank this bus (assuming it doesn't break down and they don't play any stupid movies) second out of all the ridiculously many buses I've slogged my way around the world on.  The number is still the bus in Nanning, China--I don't remember for sure now if it was from Guilin to Nanning or if it was from Nanning on to the Vietnamese border.  It was laid out like this with large recliner-like seats made possible by only having three across instead of four, but the colors were out of an elderly lady's apartment rather than a skating rink like this one--muted burgundy velvet with doilies and cream curtains.  The conductor was a young woman dressed like a flight attendant, who came around offering complimentary bottles of water.  The experience was like flying first-class (not that I have much experience with that-I only did it for about twenty minutes one time), except with more doilies. 


Rainy Travel Day

Moving on...after starting in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, I went down to Malacca, two hours south, on the coast not too far from Singapore for the weekend.  Now it's Monday morning and I'm back on the bus.
It was a bright and already-unbearably-hot-at-ten am sunny morning in Malacca, but we've been running through rain most of the way, although it's cloudy but dry now that we're coming into the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Oh, no, now it's raining again. Considering it's monsoon season, I've been very fortunate with how conveniently it's rained--so far only while I'm on a bus or in a restaurant.

From Kuala Lumpur, I'll get another bus up to the Cameron Highlands, in the mountains in the central part of the Malaysian peninsula.  I want to hike around the tea plantations and hopefully see a Rafflesia flower--the largest bloom in the world.   Its supposed to be cool up there, which will be a nice break from the crazy humidity down here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014 0 comments

Sticking to the Pavement in Malacca

Melting. Sticky. Hot. Damp. Even in the middle of a city, Mother Nature won't let me forget that Malaysia is a nation carved out of a tropical jungle.  Fortunately, a slight breeze is blowing in off the water, or I might have stuck to this pavement by now. It's the kind of humidity that, even if it doesn't feel too hot at first, within five minutes you are drenched in sweat--and it definitely feels hot.

Apparently benches aren't popular around here, but I finally found a semi-shady set of steps leading done to the river to sit on and rest a bit.  I've visited St. Paul's, the ruins of the old colonial church on the hill overlooking the city, the Clock Tower Square, the antique shops in Jonger Street, and toured the ornate some of one of the prominent families of the Baba-Nonya culture. Now that I've exhausted the more highbrow and historical attractions of Malacca--it's time for the tacky tourist diversions. What should I do next--take a boat cruise up and down the river, tour the replica pirate ship, or go up in the rotating observation deck that goes up and down the big tower in the park?


Hard Rocks Everywhere!

Long time readers of this blog (so, mom) might recall that, ten years ago (!!!) when I was studying abroad in Belgium, my friends and I went to several Hard Rock cafes across Europe.  It seems so laughable and naive now,  but for us first-time-living-abroad travelers, European food was exotic and new, and we craved familiar American food.  Now, I'm used to American and European food being lumped together under the term 'western' and not much difference made.

Anyhow, I've kept up the tradition all these years.  I usually always ordered a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich and onion rings--good southern food that I couldn't get elsewhere either in Italy or in China.  O know they're touristy and, according to the received wisdom of travelers vs. tourists, I should be ashamed of missing an opportunity for local food.  Actually, as I get older, I care less about some subjective definition of what makes a good traveler, and my bad-traveler guilt is more because it's usually twice the price of eating in a local restaurant.  It's one of those traditions that's rather taken on a life of its own, though--as I've mentioned before, I'm a list person, and it seems awful to pass one by that could go on my list of Hard Rocks Visited.  So, I just make sure I order cheaper things...

I didn't realize it while planning, but there are three (!) Hard Rocks here in Malaysia.  I knew there was one in Kuala Lumpur; I kept meaning to look up where but happened upon it before I got around to it, on my way to the Menara KL.  Here in Malacca, I didn't even know there was one when there it was, right across the bridge with a big sign.   I stopped for lunch there during my full day in Malacca; usually I save big meals for evening but with the hot sun beating down today it seemed an idea to spend a little time during the heat of the day in air conditioning.  The onion rings and chicken tenders were wonderful as always--with lots of barbecue sauce, but the music wasn't so hot.  It was all poppy, non-classic-rock stuff I'd never heard of, and the drummer for the evening's entertainment was noisily doing a sound-check across the room.  
Saturday, August 23, 2014 0 comments

The Long Walk

After exploring every corner of the shell of St. Paul's, I decided it really was time to find some dinner.  I made my way back down the hill, past the Porta de Santiago, and down in front of the mall.  I had been reading a guide to Malacca, which listed a few local foods not to miss.  Satay, as those of you familiar with Asian food know, is meat-on-a-stick and one of Malaysia's most prolific contributions to Asian street food.  But I read about something called Satay Celup, which from the description sounded a lot like my beloved hot pot in China: a bowl of boiling soup served with various items on sticks to be cooked in the broth.  Sure, it would be quite different spices to suit local tastes, but it would be fun to compare the two.  According to Lonely Planet, there was an excellent restaurant for this, and I had glanced at its location on the map and thought that my perambulations were taking me in the right general direction, only to find that I had completely confused it and it was exactly in the opposite direction.  Well, a long walk would only make it taste better when I got there. 

Back up the way I came, past all the trishaws--which are a sight in themselves.  A holdover from the days before taxis and still popular due to the crowded and narrow streets of the old town, the bicycle-powered conveyences are an art form, albeit a rather loud and tacky one.  To attract tourists to hire them to take a ride around the sights, the drivers (riders?  cyclers?  Seems there ought to be a more apt word, but it isn't coming to me) began adding decorations.  First a few fake flowers or a colorful fabric on the seat...but by now they've added stuffed animals, enough fake flowers for half a cemetery, ruffle-covered canopies, and even battery packs on the back to run strings of neon lights and steros blaring upbeat pop music.  They look like the sort of thing only a four-year-old girl could love, but the level of garishness and sparkle that they can achieve is a point of pride among the drivers.  

I passed by Dutch Square again and took a few pictures of the square by night, more interesting, really, in the glow of the street lamps and with fewer milling Chinese tour groups.  I checked the map in Lonely Planet again, which pointed me down the street alongside the church passed now-closed souvenir shops and directly out of the tourist area.  Soon I was walk down deserted streets of closed businesses and schools and feeling just a bit nervous--but surely it would be worth it when I got there, and all the better for not being on the tourist strip.  I love maps, and navigating, and usually follow them quite well.  I followed exactly as the map showed--and nothing.  I never saw any side street that could possible be the one indicated.  I finally gave up and decided to just make it back to the river and find something to eat there.  It seemed to me I'd walked more or less parallel to it since passing Christ Church, so if I turned left, it should take me down to the main road.  If I could only find a left-hand turn, which were suddenly scarce.  I had walked such a long way already that I didn't want to retrace my steps all the way back.  So I kept walking and walking, trying to find the streets I passed on the map with no luck.  I was starting to get nervous and ready to turn around even though it would be a long slog back through nothing when I came upon another brightly-lit modern shopping mall, with fancy hotels around.  Through the flourescent glow I saw a Papa John's sign.  Apparently the Satay Celup was not meant to be, I was exhausted and hot and starving as it was pushing nine by now, so I gave up and sat down for pizza and breadsticks drenched in garlic butter in air conditioning.  At least I could rest a while and hopefully figure out where I was before the long walk back.  

After I ate, I asked the waiter if he could show me where we were on a map.  Apparently map-reading was not in his skill set, so he nervously called over a passing local customer who showed me that, somehow, I was at the far end of the very same mall with the A&W I'd stepped into hours before.  I had, and I still have no idea how, walked in a gigantic circle all the way around St. Paul's hill back to exactly where I had started.  Still a bit of a walk back, but nowhere near what I'd thought.  I don't get lost often, but when I do...


St. Paul's Hill

Behind the Porta, a stairway ran up the hill to the ruins of Saint Paul's church, perched high above Dutch Square with a 360 degree view of the city and out to the port. I hadn't really planned on going up to the church tonight--I have to leave something to do tomorrow, after all--and had passed a couple of paths up already.  But who knows what the weather will be tomorrow, and the soft evening light might be the best time to photograph the old walls. So, up I went. Lovely, steep stairs on a hot, humid evening; as if I wasn't sweating enough already.  The sun was low in the sky, but the cool evening certainly hadn't started yet.  At least the stairs wound up through a flower garden.  I came out at the back of the church, a looming brick block from that angle.  A gap in the wall marked what had once been a doorway, and I stepped inside to find the walls standing tall and strong but the roof and doors and any decor long since gone.  I remembered another ruined church I'd seen once, roofless but all the more picturesque for that, out in the Burren in Ireland.  

The church began life under the name Nossa Senhora da Annunciada (Our Lady of Annunciation) in 1521, ten years into the Portuguese occupation of the area. From 1567 to 1596 it was converted into a fortress in rough times, but was a church again by the time the Dutch sieged the city and renamed it St. Paul's.  The Dutch used it was a burial ground; large ornate tombstones line the walls inside.  Although most were predictably in Dutch, I stopped to read one that was in English: 

"Sacred, To the memory of Mrs. Jane Charlotte Westerhout, born on the 20th Sep. 1806, and departed this life on the 19th January 1841, Aged 34 years 3 months and 29 days."   

Many of the stone had beautiful reliefs carved at the top; most resembled elaborate coats of arms, but one had a full-sailed ship, a reminder of the years when these merchant ships would have been a common sight here in the Straits.  As to that, merchant ships are still an every-day sight; the modern ships piled high with metal boxcar-like containers with heavy-duty cranes piled on deck just don't have quite the same romance.  
From the front of the church I had my first view out over the Straits, still crowded with ships and small islands, fading into a soft silver as the sun set behind a veil of clouds.  


Porta de Santiago and the Shopping Mall (Part 1)

As the light was still good and I still wasn't ready to find supper yet, I kept wandering along from Dutch Square.  A lot of people seemed to be strolling down one wide street, which turned into a pedestrian street not far down, so I took that direction.  I came across the Porta de Santiago, which is the last little standing bit of the old Portuguese fort A Famosa from the 16th century, although to be honest most of this little that it standing was heavily reconstructed by the Dutch, even having a Dutch coat of arms attached.  The stones were a warm gold, and the walls and floors inside were worn smooth with centuries of use.  The door was outlined with a painted (guess what color?  They sure love the red around here!) metal grating.  As with everything in Malacca, this small part of a long destroyed fort showed the layers of history of the place.

Across the street was the entrance to a large mall, with--the randomness of which American restaurants make it to which countries always surprises me--an A&W restaurant.  In fact, I later saw other A&Ws in Malaysia, and saw root beer for sale various places.  Of all the things.  I went into the mall for a few minutes to dry out a bit in the air conditioning, but there didn't seem to be any benches around to sit on so I didn't stay long before heading back out the same door by the Porta.  Just a bit of foreshadowing; you haven't heard the last of this mall.


Dutch Square

The Straits of Malacca are the narrow channel the separates the Malaysian peninsula and the large Indonesian island of Sumatra, and are the quickest way to travel between India, Burma, Thailand, Europe, and Africa on the west and China, Indonesia, and the rest of  Asia to the east.  What became the city of Malacca (Melaka in Malaysian) began as a fishing village inhabited by local Malay people in the 1300s.  According to wikipedia, there is a legend behind its rise to importance: the last Raja of Singapura (guess what that became) looked north after an attack on Singapura in 1377.  Around 1400, he came upon Malacca, which he realized was a good port, accessible in all seasons and in a strategic location at the narrowest oint of the straits.  In local legend, the Raja, Parameswara, was resting under a tree near the river while hunting.  One of his hunting dogs cornered a mouse deer (look it up, they're adorable), which in an unusally courageous move for a deer, defended itself by knocking the interfering dog into the river.  After observing this parable of the weak overcoming the powerful, the Raja decided to build a new empire at that spot, and called it Melaka after the Melaka tree he had been sitting under for the event.

Over the next hundred years, the Malays built the area into a prosperous international port, building warehouses and trading businesses to service the passing merchant ships.  According to local lore, the Sultan of Melacca even married Hang Li Po, the daughter of one of the Ming dynasty Chinese emperors, to build relations with China.

The 1500s, however, brought in merchants from even farther away as Europeans developed a taste for the spices and other new delights from Asia.  In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque of Portugal sailed in with seventeen ships and twelve hundred men and seized the city.  Unfortunately for them, the city did not prosper as well under their management; they didn't have the clout with other states necessary in Asia, among other things.  In 1641, the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and took over the city.  However, they already had their center of commerce in Asia, Batavia (now Jakarta) on the Indonesian island of Java, and never treated Malacca as a major interest.  They did build several churches and buildings which are now the core of the historic district, though.  The port city traded hands yet again in 1824, when the Dutch traded it for Bencoolen on Sumatra from the British.  The British then ruled the area until 1946 as part of the Straits Settlements, along with Singapore and Penang.  And now, of course, the city and the surrounding area are one of the states of independent Malaysia.

As an international port, Malacca has always had merchant settlers from many different places as part of its population, the largest being Chinese.  The architecture and culture of the city is a mix of local Malay, Chinese, the colonizers from Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain, and various others.  The central square of the historic center is Dutch in flavor.  The bright red buildings are in all the postcards--Christchurch, the Studhuys, and the clock tower.

Christ Church was started in 1741, as the Dutch commemorated one hundred years in Melacca, although it took twelve years to build and wasn't finished until 1753.  It took so long to build because it contains handcarved pews, a frieze of the Last Supper, bricks shipped in from Zeeland in the Netherlands, and wooden ceiling beams each carved from a single tree.  It is the oldest Protestant church in all of Malaysia; it began as a Dutch Reformed church, although during the British years it became Anglican.  Next to the church is the equally bright red Stadthuys ('"town hall" in Dutch), built years earlier in 1660, making it one of the oldest Dutch buildings in the east, and modeled after the town hall of Hoorn in the Netherlands.  Nowadays it houses a museum, but it was closed for restoration while I was there.  Also in the square is the yet again bright red Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower, which was built to look Dutch to match the surroundings, but was built by the British in 1886.


Along the Malacca River

After settling in to my hostel (top bunk again!  I hardly ever have to take a top bunk, and here's two in a row!  Fortunately, it's an easy one to climb.) and resting for a while, waiting for the heat of the day to hopefully dissipate (ha!), I set out to wander around a bit.  As it was already about five in the evening, I figured I'd just look around the immediate Chinatown neighborhood (the cheap hostels area always in Chinatown...) and find dinner.  Once I got to wandering, though, I ended up all over the historic district.  The light held out, so I just kept going. 

My day bag, which I bought especially for this trip after the zipper on my previous travel purse broke on the flight back from the U.S., only made it two days.  The stitching on the loop that the strap is attached to on one side came undone.  See if I ever buy a bag from the shops near the school gate again... anyhow, the hostel reception didn't have any needle and thread, but told me about a cobbler up on the main road that could probably fix it, although they might already be closed at this time on a Saturday.  Meanwhile, I held it together with rather overburdened safety pins--I knew they wouldn't be  a permanent solution.  

On my way up to the main street, I came out along the Malacca River, which is now lined with restaurants filling the old buildings.  Over the roofs I could see the facade of the Church of St. Francis Xavier.  As I strolled along the riverside sidewalk, boats filled with tourists passed under the bridge, going up and down the river.  Maybe I'll do that sometime tomorrow...depends on how expensive it is.  

Unfortunately, the cobbler was in fact already closed for the day (for the weekend, as it would turn out--I tried again on Sunday, but no luck), so I headed down the main street towards the most famous scene in Malacca--Dutch Square.  


South-bound Bus

Saturday morning I slept in a bit (this is becoming a trend...) after my full day wandering KL, packed up, and made my way to the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan on the south side of the city to catch a bus down to Malacca.  The bus terminal, attached to the commuter trail line, was sparkling new and had a wide array of fast food places and big-brand convenience shops (7-11 and the like instead of overcrowded little mom-and-pop places).  I don't know when I've been in a cleaner and airier bus station--this seems to be becoming a trend as well.  Malaysia is a bit richer than most of southeast Asia, and it shows.

The trip down to Malacca (Melaka in Malay; sorry if I confuse you by using whichever one comes to mind first) only took a couple of hours--as I was on an air-conditioned bus with two seats to myself, I almost wished it took a little longer.  As we left the outskirts of KL behind and headed south, the (modern, wide, traffic-law-abiding) interstate passed by pineapple and banana plantations, with the mountains in the central part of the peninsula in the background.  We stepped off the bus into another mall-like bus station, and I followed the direction from the hostel I'd booked, which were quite easy to navigate, especially thanks to yet another friendly grandmother I sat next to, who pointed out the correct stop.  I found myself right in the middle of it all, in Dutch Square.

Friday, August 22, 2014 0 comments

Observation Deck

After a couple of laps around the outdoor deck trying to capture the twinkling city below, I wandered down to the observation deck.  I was immediately thankful I had paid the money to go up top--night pictures from inside would have been nearly useless, as all the bright lights of the souvenir stalls reflected garishly against the glass.  I had to cup my hands to really get much of a view.  I did enjoy seeing a neon display of the tallest towers in the world--of which Menara KL is seventh.  Everywhere I've gone while traveling, one of my main goals has been to find out the highest spot to get a view from, no matter how many stairs I had to climb to do it--the spire of the Cologne cathedral, the Torre del Mangia overlooking the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Notre Dame in Paris, the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai...I'm just thankful this one has an elevator!

After a late dinner, I finally made it back to the hostel about eleven and joyfully took a cold shower to wash away the stickiness of the day--something you look forward to all day in that kind of thick humidity.  I was only slightly surprised when I checked the pedometer on my phone that I had set a new record for one day (in the year I've been using it--I can recall a few days long past that likely would set some records of their own): 23,811 steps.  According to an online converter I found, the average person makes 2112 steps in a mile, so that should be just over eleven miles for the day. In flip-flops.  


Menara KL by Night

As I was being shooed inside, I was miffed that I had waited all this time and missed the barbecue to see the night lights, all for nothing--but once we got in, I found several people sitting around near the elevator, some of whom had just arrived.  They thought the lightning cloud would pass over quickly and we could go back out, so I waited.  It wasn't too bad; maybe twenty minutes or so.  By the time we were released to the deck, it was fully dark and the lights of the city were sparkling in every direction.  I was so high up that the more distant ones seemed to be twinkling, like stars.  Most brightly lit, of course, were the aforementioned Petronas Towers, the pride of the city.  I also got a few shots of the Menara itself glowing against the clouds as I walked back to the monorail.  Oh, I love a city by night...


Menara KL by Day

...And this is the Menara KL!  (Menara means tower in Malay, so it's rather prosaically just the "Kuala Lumpur Tower".) The tower was built in the 1990s; its practical purpose is its 1381 foot antenna, used for television and radio communications, but of course such a tower also has plenty of uses for collecting vast amounts of money from tourists. The pod, the top of which is 1099 feet, has an observation deck and a revolving restaurant. Menara KL is the 24th-tallest freestanding structure in the world, and the seventh tallest tower. According to wikipedia, there's a race every year up the stairs to the pod, for those who are both in good shape and crazy.  There's also an apparently quite popular annual event in which professional parachutists (is that a word?) are hired to base jump from the top.  
Malaysian friendliness crosses over into their customer service--the tower is on top of an already fairly steep hill, so they have a free shuttle bus up and down.  And they didn't skimp on the shuttle golf-cart train or city bus with people packed in like sardines and holding on to a strap.  This was one of the nicest fifteen-passenger vans I've ever been in.  Squishy leather seats, good music playing, and air-conditioning blowing at full blast, with lots of vents, almost enough for everyone to have their own.  I had to wait a few minutes for more people to come along to fill it up before we went up, but I sure wasn't complaining. In fact, I rather wished they'd take a notion to go on a long expedition for gas or something.  I really didn't want to get out at the top.  Even the dashboard looked like something out of the future as it was so new and modern.  
But enough rhapsodizing about the joys of sitting in comfort in air-conditioning...up the tower! As soon as I stepped off the escalator up to the main entrance, I was greeted by one of the uniformed employees and shown the options--I could go to the observation deck for one price, or both the observation deck and also the open-air deck up even higher than the ball for about twice as much.  Well...I hadn't really planned on spending that much, but I wanted to get high as possible and the pictures would be infinitely better if they weren't through glass.  It was so high up that those who opted for the outdoor top deck had to sign a release form that they weren't responsible if we injured ourselves or somehow fell off.  [This turned out to be rather overcautious in my opinion; you would have to go to a great deal of trouble to hurt yourself or fall--there is a thick plexiglass wall chest high all the way around, and only one bump in the floor that you could even potentially trip on.]

The view out over the city is amazing--I could see for miles from up there, even on a slightly smoggy day.  I made several circuits around the tower, taking pictures from all angles, especially of the beautiful Petronas Towers, gleaming in the afternoon sun.  Eventually I found the tall building across the street from my hostel, Chinatown, and Merdeka Square.  It was after five by the time I made it up there, so I decided to dilly-dally around until it got dark to see the city light up--I certainly wasn't paying that much to come up again!  After I had taken at least ten pictures of every possible view and tried out all the setting of my new camera, including the silly ones like fish-eye and miniature toy, I sat down on a step and typed stuff on my phone, waiting on dark.  Just as it was allllllmost dark enough and lights were just beginning to come on, an employee came out and rushed me back inside...there was lightning in the area, and it wasn't safe to be out.  


Day of Mourning for MH17

As I was walking around Merdeka Square earlier, I noticed that the flag on the gigantic 95 meter flagpole was at half-mast, and wondered why.  As I continued my jaunt around the city, it soon became apparent that all the flags were at half-mast.  I planned to ask at the hostel when I got back, but I found the answer along the way as I walked towards the Menara KL Tower.  The Shangri-La Hotel had posted a large board outside on their flagpoles: August 22nd was a national day of mourning for those who died in the crash of MH17, the plane that was shot down while crossing over Ukraine in July. Today the first twenty bodies of the Malaysian citizens who died (more than forty, if I'm not mistaken) were arriving in Kuala Lumpur.  After this tragedy, coming so close to the loss of the Malaysian flight in the Pacific earlier this year, Malaysian officials declared a day of mourning and gave the victims the honor of state recognition--the bodies were ceremonially received at the airport and the coffins draped in Malaysian flags, which had never been done for anyone other than military or top government leaders.  [Over the next several days, I saw many such signs and billboards, with companies and organizations expressing their condolences.]


Indecision: To the Tower!

At the end of Jalan Lee, I stopped at a 7-11 on the corner (those things seem to be everywhere in southeast Asia) to buy another cold peach tea and loiter in the air conditioning as long as possible.  They have a counter just for that purpose, where you can stand and eat.  I took another look through my Lonely Planet and a wikitravel article I'd saved to Pocket on my phone, trying to decide what my next destination should be.  Dark clouds were gathering, and a few sprinkles had hit my head as I came in, so I thought the best route would be to make for the National Museum for an indoor adventure.  With that in mind, I made my way around road construction and parked buses to the Paser Seni subway station--the bridge over the canal to the area of the museum and a large mosque was on the other side.  But as I walked, the dark clouds passed on over and gathered over a hill to the west of the city. The sun shone brightly through friendly puffy white clouds again.  I dithered in indecision a bit on a bench by the station; now it seemed a shame to go indoors on such a lovely (but still hot as...fill in your favorite cliche) afternoon.  I had planned to save going up in the Menara KL Tower until I returned to Kuala Lumpur at the end of the trip, but who knows if I would have good weather then?  What if I was really rushed when I got back?  The downside was that there was a barbecue party at the hostel at 7:30 that I had rather wanted to attend (I usually don't bother with such things, but after spending a week at home in my apartment I was kind of ready to socialize), and I probably wouldn't make it back if I went to the tower.  But the weather was perfect for seeing the city from, I hopped on the monorail at Paser Seni and headed back downtown to the Golden Triangle area.  


Wandering down Jalan ...something... Lee

After a quick lunch, I decided the most efficient way to hit several more sites listed in the Lonely Planet would be to walk back to the neighborhood of my hostel down a particular street with a long name that ended in Lee, which promised a Chinese temple and an Indian temple that were important to Kuala Lumpur's history.  After passing near my hostel, I would continue on to a famous Mosque (hitting all the religions today!) and maybe even the national museum.  I don't know how many days I'll have in Kuala Lumpur when I get back, so I might as well fit in as much as possible!

After circling a block in the wrong direction, I finally found the right heading and set out for a long walk.  Walking in a city, if it  has any character, is usually an enjoyable use of time anyhow.  As I drifted out of the concrete canyons of the center city and back into Chinatown, the building got shorter, more colorful, and decidedly run-down.  It took some doing to find the Sin Sze Si Ya Chinese Temple--I was expecting a large ornate gate or some such--but it turned out to be a down a little alleyway and tucked into a small courtyard between buildings.  Inside, however, it gleamed with gold and red, although, again, while from a Malaysian point of view I'm sure it's quite interesting, coming from a Chinese point of view it wasn't really anything special outside of having been in Kuala Lumpur for a long time.  The Indian temple turned out to be even more underwhelming--mostly modern marble floor with a small altar, and you had to pay 20 cents to leave your shoes at the stall outside the gate.


Merdeka Square

After passing the Masjid Jamek mosque (that's probably redundant...I've seen the word masjid elsewhere and it probably means search, yes, it does), I made my way out into Dataran Merdeka, or Merdeka Square.  Merdeka, in Malay, means independence.  The open area was once the cricket pitch of the Selangor Club and is lined with colonial buildings from the years of British control of the peninsula.  The large green playing field was a great place for thousands to gather and cheer on August 31, 1957 when, at midnight, the British flag was lowered for the last time and the Malay flag was hoisted as the country gained its independence.  At that time the new state was called Malaya; the name of the nation was changed to Malaysia in 1963 to mark the joining of the peninsula with the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo and Singapore (although Singapore stayed in the federation for only two years).  

Now the square has been paved, with a rather underwhelming and obviously unpopular (I only saw about four people other than staff down there when I went down to enjoy the air conditioning) shopping center and a much more popular parking garage below ground.  A 95-meter tall flagpole stands at one end, one of the highest in the world, and many of the colonial buildings now hold miscellaneous small museums.  The buildings were nice and I got a few good pictures, particularly of the Sultan Abdul Samad building with the skyscrapers behind, and, through a gap, the gleaming spires of the famous Patronas Towers.  My main memory of the square, though, is heat and light.  I felt like I was being baked alive, squinting around the vast pavement with the noonday sun beating down with no obstacle.  I was glad to get back among the buildings where at least there are occasional shadows and awnings and such.  


Masjid Jamek

Being a good tourist, I next headed to see some of Kuala Lumpur's noted historical sites.  I exited at Masjid Jamek into a crowd of stalls selling plates of food and snacks and discount headscarves and clothing, with a Burger King gleaming on the corner behind, and a traffic jam all around.  I made my way around the corner through all the shopping women and walked alongside a small and dirty canal.  On the opposite side stood the domed mosque I had seen from the train, Masjid Jamek, which gave the station its name.  As it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, the grounds were especially busy with men washing their hands in large fountains and sitting in the shaded porticoes--61% of the population, mostly ethnic Malays, are Muslims.

The mosque is a beautiful building--warm tan stone with stripes of creamy white marble, with three white onion domes. The minarets at the corners were topped with matching miniature domes, and the porticoes were outlined with white trim in an undulating geometric pattern.  The ornate decor was a pleasing contrast with the shiny steel-and-glass of the sky scrapers behind.