Friday, March 26, 2010

Malaysia's City of Harmony: Kuala Lumpur

Neither of us is particularly enthusiastic about museums, especially the underfunded and propaganda-heavy Southeast Asian variety. But it's 100 degrees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a bustling and relatively young city that is a haven for corporations and immigrants, and besides visiting malls, museums, and ethnic enclaves, there's not all that much for tourists to do. As much as we enjoyed the National Museum, which featured air-conditioning and all sorts of entertaining historical simulations (one, for example, illustrated how Islam spread into Malaysia), the tremendous emphasis on multiculturalism and tolerance aroused in us some suspicion.

In spite of the recent church bombings, KL has a reputation--no doubt inspired by the Malaysian government--as a city of racial and religious harmony. Even Lonely Planet brands the city, emphasizing that churches, mosques, and Chinese temples as well as head-scarved Muslims and Chinese women in mini-skirts all "coexist harmoniously." As we learned from our wonderful "couchsurfing" host, the peace is forced; the large minorities of Indians and Chinese (Buddhists, Hindus and Christians) face institutional discrimination at the hands of the Malay (Muslim) dominated government. Most slots in public universities, for example, are reserved for Malays, while Indians and Chinese who wish to learn are rerouted into expensive private schools. The issue of mixed marriages is resolved by requiring the non-Malay partner to convert to Islam and change their name. Moreover, the Malaysian notion of "Chinese" or "Indian" is plain weird: our host, whose family has been in Malaysia for many generations, is considered Chinese because her great, great-grandfather immigrated from China. By that logic, Ali is Ukrainian-Canadian.

To top it all off, following ethnic/religious violence in 1969, the Malaysian government banned public opposition to the "racial situation." As our host put it, "there's no point talking about it because it's never going to change."

Malaysian Islam may be relatively moderate, but it's certainly in your face. The National Mosque is full of leaflets defending Islam against harmful western stereotypes and, at the same time, instructing foreigners on how to convert (it's very easy). There is even an exceedingly friendly Muslim woman at the entrance to the mosque who instructs all female tourists in how to wear the required purple cloaks (see pictures). The Islamic Arts Museum was full of beautiful and characteristically intricate art, but also sold books featuring theological debates between Christians and Muslims (inevitably, the Muslim scholar won). We couldn't help but feel that the women wearing burqas along with high heels or lipstick, or while sitting in a swimming pool, were pressured to do so.

As it turns out, like in Saudi Arabia, Muslims are under the watch of the plainscloth Islamic police, who have the authority to punish their co-religionists who act outside the boundaries of Islamic law. Still, we were struck by the number of working women--cops wearing headscarves beneath their berets, women in suits wearing headscarves--and by the occasional sight of hooded young women holding hands and laughing flirtatiously with boyfriends (husbands?) on the train or in the cinema. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

Our visit to Malaysia marks the beginning of the third and last leg of our adventure. We've done India and Nepal, we've done SE Asia; it's hard to believe it, but we only have two more countries to see, and we'll be back home in a month. We are definitely tired of hotel rooms and non potable tap water, but are finding plenty of inspiration to keep exploring.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


There are only a couple activities in Battambang, a friendly and dreadfully sweaty town in Western Cambodia. The "Bamboo Train" is a bamboo raft with a motor attached that runs really fast on railroad tracks and the countryside tour allows you to see village families engaged in rice paper making, fish paste fermenting, and noodle pounding. During the five hottest hours of the day tourists can retreat to the friendly shops which serve pancakes and coffee for cheap. Our favorite was the Sunrise Cafe, frequented by American missionaries, which served iced coffee with ice cubes made out of coffee!!! Holy Crap, why haven't we been doing this our whole lives?

Click here to see pictures from Angkor Wat and Siem Reap

Click here to see pictures from Battambang

Click here to see pictures from Phnom Penh

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Around Angkor: Wat do we see?

Guest blogger here again. From Phnom Penh we took the bus eight hours north to Siem Reap. It was a long ride but I enjoyed sitting next to Ali, laughing, talking and looking out the window. Lots of dust and bright colors.

Each morning we wake up early to go see the temples while it’s cool out and the light slants in low through the trees. I’ve never been an early riser but even I can get up for this. Some of the temples are over 1,000 years old; I’ve taken so many pictures of their crumbling corridors, arches and columns that when I close my eyes that’s what I see imprinted on the backs of my eyelids.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat (the most famous temple at Anchor) was built for king Suryavarman II in the 12th century but many of the surrounding monuments were built for other kings. We found that our favorite temples — Preah Kahn with its mazelike passageways, Bayon with its impassive faces, Ta Phrom with its enormous trees pushing up through the ruins — were all built by the same king: Jayavarman VII. He’s our guy, we decided.

He’s not a modest guy, this Jayavarman VII. Practically every surface of Bayon is covered with giant stone carvings of his face. We wonder who built these temples…not Jayavarman VII. We wonder what their faces looked like.

All around the temples are dozens of tiny, skinny children running after tourists, trying to sell bracelets, coconuts, anything. Some of the children just beg. It’s hard to turn a cold eye but if these kids can make good money at the temples, their desparately poor parents have a strong incentive for keeping them home from school. (Better to give your money to a charity or some socially-forward program.) This is what we’re up against when we tell these children no:

Yesterday Ali, Jeremy and I spent the twilight hours at Bayon. It reminds me of Mount Rushmore with all its ridiculous giant faces. I think Lincoln left to his own devices would never have his face carved all over an enormous rock. Perhaps I give him too much credit. George Washington would be all about it.

In the states temples like these would be roped off. The intricate carvings would be behind glass. I love climbing around the temples as if I just stumbled upon them in the jungle but I know that I am part of their deterioration. In another ten or twenty years these temples will look very different than they do now.

The best thing to do at the temples, I think, is to find a shady courtyard and sit there. It’s great to step back from all the crazed gawking and just hang out in an ancient, quiet place. Of course it’s also around 100 degrees out, so sitting in the shade is as much a physical imperative as a spiritual preference.

At the end of a long, hot day, the romance of the temple wears off. In fact a cold papaya smoothie has much more appeal. I think that by sunset tomorrow, we’ll be just about ready to leave for Battambang.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Into Phnom Penh

After two days on the airplane and a 12-hour layover in Tokyo, I finally arrived in Cambodia last night. Ali and Jeremy were waiting for me at the airport and whisked me away in their tuk-tuk to Kambuja Inn, the gorgeous place we're staying in Phnom Penh. ("I" for the purposes of this blog post refers to me, your guest blogger, and the mysterious newest addition to A Dream, A Chance, A Great Adventure whose identity may remain forever unknown.)

Traveling by tuk-tuk is a good way to see the city, since the rickshaws move so slowly and every side is open to the air. There's a liveliness and happiness to the city here that I felt instantly in the street clamour and motorcycles whizzing around us. The feel is foreign but familiar, or as Ali put it, we could live here. Not for five years, she said, but maybe for a year.

Something magical about Cambodia, I think. And I don't just mean the temples of Angkor Wat. Something about the vibrancy of the people contrasted with the history of the mass killings that took place only a few decades ago. There is little evidence of that dark past in the day to day drum of the city. It's only when you've been walking around for the better part of an afternoon that you notice something, like that you haven't seen any old people all day.

Today we traveled by tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields, one of a smattering of sites where hundreds of thousands of women, children, and intellectuals were murdered under the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was strange, we had some trouble finding a driver perhaps because of a language barrier, but perhaps because the driver we were talking to--and a large group of teenagers standing by--didn't seem to know where the Killing Fields were. Much of the country's bloody history seems to have been buried along with the dead.

At Choung Ek Killing Field they talked about everything in numbers. There were 20,000 grave sites; 1,112,898 executed; 7 survivors. A commemorative stupa was filled with the skulls of victims, and all the bones were neatly sorted by type, and by the age of the people that died. Exhibit A: skulls, women ages 20 to 40. Exhibit B: femurs, teenage girls, ages 15 to 20.

Just outside the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Killing Field, children chatted and sang songs. It was uncanny, these children playing so carelessly alongside tragedy. Maybe it's a testament to the strength of the human spirit, and our ability to stay light even in the presence of great adversity. Or maybe it says something about our phenomenal capacity to heal. Or maybe it's just disturbing...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Phu Quoc Island and the Mekong Delta

It turns out that Phu Quoc Island, an undeveloped tropical paradise in southern Vietnam, played an important role in Vietnamese history: the S. Vietnamese set up a large POW camp there during the civil war, and later, Cambodia's invasion of the island helped trigger the Vietnamese-Cambodian war and the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. But, we didn't think about that very much during our five days there. Instead we ate fresh fruit and the catch of the day, swam in crystal-clear warm sea water, and napped on the beach. After five months of trying to make decisions about what to do and where to go without really knowing what to expect, we stayed as immobile and made as few choices as possible.

For 50 cents, you can buy one of these pineapples...

From Phu Quoc we proceeded to the Mekong Delta-the mainland of southern Vietnam-which is an extremely poor region (like the Burmese and American governments, the Socialist Republic seems to hold a grudge against people who live in deltas), but an extremely abundant producer of tropical fruits. For 75 cents you can purchase a couple of pounds of choice mangoes, and 50 cents will get you a watermelon or papaya, but we mainly stuck with the mangoes.

Yesterday, we boarded a fast boat (in contrast to the slow boats of Laos) that delivered us efficiently and pleasantly to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We were sad to leave Vietnam. We spent a full month there, more time than we spent anywhere else but India, and it was one of our favorite stops, featuring the national pride, grittiness, and aliveness of India, without the same intensity of social problems like overpopulation, animosity towards women, and general dirtiness. We also appreciated the opportunity to learn more about America's involvement in the region and the impacts of the "American War" from a Vietnamese perspective. We were surprised to find, for example, that many Vietnamese are just as angry at their own government for the long civil war they fought as they are at the Americans for getting all tangled up in it. Except for a few very minor incidents (and the museum propaganda), we were treated very warmly, and even had a lovely dinner in Danang at the home of a woman who served in the Viet Cong, and her family.

Click here to see pictures from Hoi An and Da Nang

Click here to see pictures from The Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fe Fi Pho Fum

Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as government officials refer to it) is a frenetic modern city which maintains its pre-war reputation as a capitalist-and debaucherous-hub. Huge office buildings, bank headquarters, shopping malls, night clubs, and gourmet restaurants line many streets, and Saigon more closely resembles Bangkok or Hong Kong than Hanoi. Saigon does share food, language, and street crossing etiquette with Hanoi, except that in Saigon you are crossing 11-lane highways teeming with motorbikes, trucks, and lots of cars. Saigon is full of culinary delicacies (for example, snails, frogs, weasel-dropping coffee, and French restuarants); here are some of the things we have been eating throughout the country:

Tea with Jelly: This is just like normal tea, except for the large blobs of "jelly" floating around in it. Amazingly, the blobs can be sucked through straws and regain their shape once in your mouth. Ali really likes this stuff.

Papaya Oatmeal Boat: When we're not in the mood for either eggs and toast or beef noodle soup for breakfast, we make these papaya oatmeal boats. Our trusty pot, purchased all the way back in Nepal, has been banged around a lot, but is still purifying our water and cooking our oats.

Pho: Beef noodle soup. We eat it every day, usually with basil, lemongrass, lime, chilis and, Ali's favorite, sprouted mung beans. Apparently, Bill Clinton likes pho. When he visited Saigon in the 90s (the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war), he ate at a now famous place called Pho 2000.

Rambutan: Not to be confused with lychee, which are also small, pink and prickly, we purchase these things by the kilo, usually from old ladies with bamboo baskets. They taste sort of like grapes, but you often end up with wood shavings in your mouth as the pits disintegrate easily.

Spring Rolls: Ali fries the first of several batches of spring rolls during her cooking class in Hanoi. She brought them home to Jeremy for lunch. They tasted good.

Shrimp Stuffed Glutinous Rice Balls with Duck Liver: Went out on a limb with this one...

We are departing tomorrow for Phu Quoc Island where we will hopefully stay in a small bungalow on the beach.