More Thoughts on Malaysia

I've been in Malaysia for a bit over a week. We stayed the first three nights at a hotel on Penang Island (a large island about the size of Silicon Valley and just about as well developed) and then moved two miles away to Fumie's dad's place, also on Penang. He's here on a long-term work assignment.

For the weekend we went to Langkawi island, a somewhat smaller and vastly less-developed island a 20-minute flight north of Penang, just off the southern border of Thailand. Our hotel, the Andaman, was a thirty-minute drive from the airport and exactly at the edge of nowhere.

The Andaman is a study in contrasts. They aim to be a 5-star world-class resort, and their RM900 (about US $270) rate for a small one-bedroom room is on the slightly low side of par for that (I did meet someone paying US$400 for a room, so I guess we got lucky). The breakfast buffet cost US$21, and a cocktail $7.50. Yet, private in-room baby-sitting costs less than $3/hr.

The room has no clock, and none are available should you ask. Their food presentation (utilizing flowers and leaves and shoots from the surrounding rainforest) is the best I have ever seen, eclipsing what I've seen at swanky restaurants in DC, Paris, London, and Kyoto. The room was clean and the air conditioner worked very well, but the general condition was not much better than you might find at the average Motel 6. (There were, to its credit, many more towels than you'd find at a Motel 6.)

The resort had its own private beach which was unfortunately devoid of young women in skimpy bathing suits. Massages ran about $25-$50 per hour. They had a “business center” (a room with two computers) with internet access, but the computers were running Windows XP with only 128 meg of memory, which rendered them and their 2.8GHz Pentium processors virtually useless.

Anyway, we arrived back here (Penang) yesterday. Tomorrow, Fumie and I go early to Kuala Lumpur for some shopping, then meet Anthony and Fumie's mom at KL's airport for a midnight flight back to Japan.

Some random observations about Malaysia:

  • The Weather Channel doesn't know much about Penang weather. Before coming they (via Yahoo! Weather) predicted thunderstorms every day of my visit. One day had a brief (30-minute) shower, and very late one night the skies positively opened up for an hour. Otherwise, it's been fantastic weather.

  • There are a lot of wireless access points in residential areas, but very few have WEP (basic minimal security) turned off. Since even access points with a name like “default” have WEP, I have to guess that it's on by default for most units sold here. We're at a cluster of five or six 22-story buildings with a total of 331 units, and I found only one open access point that I can connect to. I'm composing this posting offline, and will trot over to Building “F”, floor 16, to “borrow” someone's WAP to upload to my blog. (Since I'm composing offline, there are no embedded links, sorry.)

  • Mc Donald's offers delivery here. I must stress that I have experienced neither Mc Donald's food nor its delivery on this trip, but judging from the “McDelivers” signs plastered on a McDonald's we went by, they offer the service.

  • There's surprisingly little smoking. It's wonderful. Tourists are more likely to smoke than the locals.

  • They're starting to put timers on the traffic lights and cross walks. This, too, is wonderful -- more so than you can imagine. When at a red light or a crosswalk, you know exactly how many seconds until it turns green, and vice-versa. It seems like it would be “nice” but not that big a deal, but it's a huge de-stresser.

  • Small motorbikes are very popular, and I've seen up to four riders on one (Mom, dad, big brother, tiny infant). The vast majority of riders wear helmets, although substantially less on Langkawi where everything seems to be a bit more laid back.

  • Traffic at first seems to be somewhat chaotic, but after a while you get a feel for the cadence of things, and now after a week it feels well orchestrated. My general impression is that it's more sane than Kyoto or Silicon Valley (and vastly more-so than Southern California). It's so much better than in Thailand or India, which, previously, my preconceptions had Malaysia with.

  • There are always exceptions. When traffic backs up at a red light, there is occasionally a car which rudely jumps out and drives in the opposite lane to jump in front of others. A notable percentage of motorbikes aren't generally too concerned about stopping for red lights -- at least, not stopping for very long. (They're about on par with pedestrians waiting for a red crosswalk sign to become green -- some wait, some don't.)

  • At least in Penang, there's a preponderance of one-way streets with no apparent “other way” street that I can detect. If you miss a turn and don't know exactly how to get back, you're in trouble.

  • The national currency is the Malaysian Ringgit, and prices are quoted as “RM900” (the hotel room) or “RM1.80” (a can of Coke -- 50 US cents). Yet, there occasionally seems to be some habit/fad to use the word “dollar” instead of “Ringgit”. It was quite confusing the first time I ran into it.

  • Malaysian food is yummy, although I would be hard-pressed to name or describe much of what I've had.

  • Today we went to a department store that was as modern, well lit, and well stocked as any I'd been to in Japan or the US. They had a Japanese-style bakery with all kinds of yummy things. A fancy pastry was “$1.30”, but the “$” really meant “Ringgit”, so the fancy pastry was US 35 cents.

  • Islam is the predominant religion, and as such many women wear head scarves (not the full-body black thing with just a slit for the eyes, but, rather, the kind of head scarf Aunt Fanny might have worn to church in the old days). Sometimes it goes with jeans or other regular clothes, but often it goes with a stunningly beautiful, vividly colorful long flowing dress. One of the most beautiful I ever saw (and I've seen many jaw-droppingly beautiful dresses here) was on a young girl standing at an intersection in the middle of Langkawi island, waiting to cross on her bicycle, on here way home from school. It was hot and sunny and her scarf and dress were vividly lime, and her appearance was pristine in every respect. I very much wanted to take her photograph, but the taxi was moving and I was too stunned to act quickly enough.

  • Malaysians really know their juice. We were at a typical outdoor cafe (which is much more of a controlled-chaos mad-house than the roads) and I asked the waitress what juices they had, and she rattled off a list so long and so fast that I literally couldn't listen quickly enough to take it all in. Somewhere in the list I heard “guava” and stopped her. What I got was green. (I've since learned that there's green guava and red guava, the latter being what Kern's produces in Hawaii.) Watermelon juice is a popular drink -- you can get it anywhere. It tastes like they squeezed a watermelon and poured the runoff into your glass, which is I'm sure exactly what's done much of the time. Apple juice comes with a heavy green foam head; I have no idea what it is, but it's tasty.

  • There's a 100% excise tax on imported cars. “Proton”, the main Malaysian car maker, therefor enjoys a huge price advantage. From what I can tell, though, their cars seem to be in the same league as Honda or Toyota. At least, visually, they seem to share the same designer. Cars in general are getting more and more popular -- even just a few years ago the number of motorbikes was apparently much more than now, but people have graduated to cars as the economy has gotten better. Things look very bright for Malaysia, except for the impending traffic jam that will hit when the economy gets just a bit better.

  • There's a lot of nice public artwork (fountains, etc.) that's particularly pretty at night. Both public and private properties often light up their grounds at night with colorful lights, making for very pleasant sights. This is all over, not just the big towns or tourist areas.

  • Car seats are not required for children unless they're in the front seat.

  • The general feeling I get around Penang is much of what I feel in Silicon Valley. Lots of specialty shops, lots of hi tech, lots of people, a generally safe feeling, mobile-phone advertisements everywhere. The only big differences are that high-rise buildings (20+ stories) are all over, and the mosque (or whatever they're called) ring out five times a day calling their faithful to prayer.

One comment so far...

Hi! Reading your thoughts on Malaysia is funny! Some are true, some are… different. haha… It’s nice to read about others perspective.

I’ve been a reader of your blog for a few months now. Stumble upon it while I was researching for my Japan trip next April. Reading your blog makes me want to visit ALL of Kyoto, it’s beautiful! Keep them coming! 🙂

— comment by Kat on November 30th, 2009 at 6:09pm JST (14 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink
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