Category Archives: Malaysia

We’re off to Malaysia

Malaysia Map

After much indecision, we’ve decided to travel to Malaysia this year. For those who remember that we traveled to Malaysia in 2006, this year we are traveling through the Peninsula. Malaysia is made up of two parts, and previously we’d traveled in the portion on the island of Borneo (the eastern half shown on the map).

For this trip, we are flying to Kuala Lumpur where we have a hotel room reserved for the first three nights. From there we are improvising. Malaysia is a very modern country with good transportation and convenient communication. We have a few connections in the country that we will give us some goals and points of interest. We expect to find interesting  sights, relaxing locations, and amazing food.

Last year, we discovered how easy it is to just rely on Facebook for posting photos and status. We didn’t really make any blog entries. This year we plan on continuing to post on Facebook, but to also go back to posting on the blog. I’ll be sending out an email to our mailing list to confirm those who’d like to get notices when we make blog entries. Add a comment to this post if you want to be added to that mailing list.

As before, I (Alan) will be making the Facebook posts, and Harriet will be writing the blog posts. All credit for the well written words should go to her.

Our house-sitter will be taking care of Karma (and watching old black and white movies with her), and we’ll be back in time for Thanksgiving.


Malaysian Invasion

img_2638.jpgDuring the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we had a surprise visit from the Ho family. We met Mr. and Mrs. Ho at their restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia where we had some great Dim Sum. Harriet had struck up a conversation with Mr. Ho and found out that their son was attending Purdue University in Indiana. He and his wife were coming to the U.S. to visit their son, as soon as they could straighten out Visa issues. They planned on flying through LA and we gave them our phone number to call if they got the chance.

Well, just before Christmas their son, Shyan, called to tell us they were all in LA being tourists, and that now there were 5 of them! We arranged for them all to come up and stay with us for a few days after Christmas. In the picture, above, are Mr. and Mrs. Ho, their son Shyan, Xian’s girlfriend Eva, and the Ho’s second son. There’s one more son who didn’t make the trip. The picture was taken in front of the Santa Barbara Courthouse.

img_2657.jpgIt was a bit crowded, but we were able to fit everyone and had a great cultural experience as we showed them around Santa Barbara. Mrs. Ho prepared a couple of meals, and Harriet had a chance to see how some Chinese/Malasian meals were really made. In this picture, you can see Mr.s Ho working with our pathetically small wok. I think she was disappointed with Harriet’s kitchen tools, although if you know Harriet’s kitchen, that’s an amusing thought. It was truly a unique cultural experience, and a lesson in relative culinary expectations. Bottom line, we now know we need a bigger wok.

We had a wonderful meal at a local Chinese restaurant where the Hos had a chance to negotiate with the owner over some real Chinese dishes, in Chinese. I’ve never had fish with toasted soy bean, before, and it was quite good.

img_2651.jpgSince Shyan is an engineering student and Eva is a programmer, we stopped off at my workplace to give them a tour. I don’t know that I’m a typical representative of the Software Engineering profession, after all that cut out of Darth Vader in a multi-color boa quoting our ISO-9001 quality statement is at the entrance to my cubicle. But, I probably helped break some stereotypes for Shyan’s folks.

img_2664.jpgThey stayed with us for three nights and then took the airbus to the LA airport for their various flights home (Indiana and Malaysia-which are each interesting contrasts with Santa Barbara). We took this picture just before they left, with their whole family and our two dogs (Mrs. Ho was particularly fond of the dogs and would just sit and pat their heads-which they, of course, loved).

It was a great experience for us and I think everyone had a fine time.

Looking for Michael Jackson: Brunei

Mosque 1Kampung Ayer MosqueTwo GirlsKampung Ayer AntennaTwo BoysKampung AyerDairy QueenPalaceChandelierShopping MallNight MosqueLooking for Michael Jackson: Negara Brunei Darussalam (Brunei, the Abode of Peace)

We flew to Brunei on a wing and a prayer — the “wing” being Royal Air Brunei with large seats, good food and excellent service; the “prayer” being… well… an actual prayer. As the jet pulled away from the gate, but before the safety talk of seatbelts and seat cushions that could be used as a flotation device, the video screens dropped down and there was a prayer chanted in Arabic with English subtitles. Nice touch.

We had reserved a room at an international meeting house and teaching/training center. Their drivers, dressed in their finest attire (gold brocade sarongs wrapped over slacks), drove us to VOTECH where we were greeted by the director, the director’s wife and several staff members. They were extremely welcoming and invited us to their Hari Rya celebration later that afternoon. We settled in and then set off to explore Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

The center of the capital was less than half a kilometer from our accommodations but there were no clear paths or sidewalks and we had to cross over several busy lanes of highway. It’s not for lack of funding or planning. It’s just that no one walks anywhere! First of all, cars are cheap, gas is very cheap, so everyone drives everywhere. And, as we soon learned, it’s just too damn hot to be out walking.

We stopped for a fabulous dim sum lunch at one of Brunei’s points of pride — the new shopping mall. The staff was extremely friendly, the service perfect, and the food was some of the best we’ve had. The mall is… well.. a mall. A big, shiney, multi-story, new mall with big new expensive stores, multi-plex theatre, gourmet supermarket, Dairy Queen and ice rink..

From there we walked over to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque where we were the only visitors. The mosque-keeper let us in and showed us around. Exquisite stained glass from England. Wool carpets from Belgium. Chandelier from Venice. Lots of gold. As we were exiting this sacred, elegant structure, we spotted what looked like an ATM in the back of the nave. It turned out to be a video kiosk with FAQs about Islam. The mosque is surrounded by a moat and we were able to walk out onto the “island” that is used for ceremonial purposes. We had the entire place to ourselves.

From the mosque we strolled out to Kampung Ayer, the series of poor stilt villages on the water connected by kilometers of plankways and speedboat “taxis.” Again, we were the only people out and about except for a few groups of friendly young school children who came out to practice their English.

Kampung Ayer is touted in all the tourism materials as a “charming” place to visit. Granted, the kids were cute and the walkways are fun, but there is no charm to the poverty which is in stark contrast to the extreme wealth within easy view. I assume these are the people who scrub those hotel toilets and mop the malls after hours.

Finding a bus took some effort because, as mentioned before, it seems like everyone drives everywhere. We asked half a dozen people before spotting the stop ourselves. Eventually, we caught a bus to the national museum. There were maybe a dozen people in the entire place. The highlight was a spectacular display of illuminated Korans. Some of them were far more elaborate and exquisite than any illuminated manuscripts I had ever seen with unbelievable detail and nearly microscopic gold calligraphy on some of the borders. These alone were worth the trip to Brunei.

Finding a bus back into town proved to be impossible. We waited outside for about 45 minutes, (which, in the 110 degree heat, felt like days) certain we would succumb to dehydration and heat stroke, when a guy who said he was a tax driver offered to drive us. At that point, we would have paid anyone anything to take us anywhere. And, like everyone else we met in Brunei, he turned out to be very friendly and helpful.

I had wanted to see the Sultan’s palace and it was rumored that it might be open for Hari Raya. Our driver/new best friend drove us out to the palace, insisted on helping us cross the “busy” street (which we found very sweet), put us in a couple of those awful, boring poses in front of the locked gates and uniformed guards and snapped photos for us, then shuttled us back to VOTECH.


So we crawl into VOTECH, sweat gushing out of every pore, and are greeted, again, by the director and several staff members — all dressed in their holiday finery — who want us to join the Hari Raya party. We convince them that we really do need to change into something that isn’t dripping wet, and return to the party a few minutes later.

Men on one side. Women on the other. Two enormous tables piled high with food. (Coolers with Diet Pepsi for Alan.) Someone takes me by the hand (think Jewish mother only Muslim) and insists I start loading up my plate. “Take more, take more… Have you tried the satay?… Don’t miss the chicken soup…” I’m happy to oblige. I’m told that Alan and I can sit together since we’re “special guests” so I find a couple chairs on the “border” so as not to completely offend everyone. I make small talk with the woman next to me about the great food and stop myself just before blurting out one of my standard lines (Note to Nina: feel free to add this to your travel socializing repertoire) “The food here is so good. I don’t know how you stay so slim. If I lived here, I would weigh 100 kilos (220 lbs.)”

The problem is, most of the women did weigh well over 100 kilos, most of the men were huge, and many of the children and teens we saw were unhealthily overweight. It’s not that this is a country of large-statured, big-boned people. No, this is a country of mostly wealthy people who eat a lot of fast food, drive everywhere and get no exercise except, perhaps, strolling through an air-conditioned mall.

Back to the party…

Eventually, we’re introduced to some big wigs and try to be gracious and inquisitive although it is clear that the big-wigs are more interested in getting back to the food table for another helping of satay and fried noodles. We meet another Westerner who looks even more out of place than us — a young French woman with long strawberry-blond hair, wearing a short, sleeveless dress, who was just hired to teach there.

But it was the winding down of the party that was most amusing. Keep in mind that most of the attendees are teachers or administrative staff and probably not receiving the highest salaries. So, the party is over, the staff has to attend a meeting, and there’s a ton of leftover food. Out come the styro boxes and paper plates and people are just shoveling the leftovers onto plates, into paper cups, into Ziplocs, onto clipboards, into purses; wedging cans of soda under their arms, probably under their dresses. Within minutes, the food tables are nearly empty. It was just like any social service or teachers’ gathering. Nothing goes to waste.

We were urged to do the same but politely took only a small baggie of cookies and a can of soda. They were probably muttering to themselves, “No wonder those Americans are so tiny. They don’t eat anything.” Frankly, after looking relatively huge and not fitting into an XXL t-shirt in Malaysia, I was happy to be thought of as the skinny little tourist.

Later that evening, we explored the outdoor food market and the very indoor, air-con food court at the mall. Attached to the mall (did we mention it has a skating rink?) is a brand new, gigantic hotel — the largest in Brunei. As a result of Alan’s curiosity, Harriet’s unabashed willingness to ask anyone for just about anything, and the open, friendly nature of the Brunei people, we were treated to a private tour of the place. Pretty spectacular.

We never did get to see Michael Jackson (evidently he was in London that week) but we can certainly understand why he’s now calling Brunei his home. It’s a friendly, pretty, slightly weird place where excessive wealth is not such an oddity.

Brunei is a very Muslim country and it is nearly impossible to find alcohol anywhere. The souvenir I regret not having bought in the airport gift shop: A shot glass with a picture of the grand mosque on it.

Next up: Back to Singapore

It’s a Jungle Out There: Orang Utans

River 1Hanging FlowersYellow FlowerTurtleRed FlowerWalkwayOrang Utan 1Orang Utan 2Pod FlowerAfter our decadent island stay, we steeled ourselves for our flight to Sandakan and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary. (By “steeled” we mean we ate more good, cheap food and cooled off by strolling the air-con shopping malls before returning to our tenth floor hotel room.)

Note to budget travellers: We discovered the Ryan Air (or Southwest) of Asia. We flew 4 times on Air Asia, the Malaysia-based, no-frills, budget airline. Three out of four times we left EARLY — as soon as they load the flight, they take off, damn any stragglers. The fourth time, we left 10 minutes late and arrived only 5 minutes late. The average fllight cost about $20. We immediately lost any desire to “travel with the locals” on 6-14 hour sweltering bus rides.

A van picked us up at the Sandakan airport and we drove straight to the Sepilok Jungle Resort where we checked into a very ratty room (but only $12), dumped our bags and dashed out to the orang (man) utan (of the forest) sanctuary.

The Sepilok Resort sits in a semi-wild, manicured, multi-hectre portion of jungle. There are Disneyland-like walkways over murky river waters (except there really IS scarey stuff in these waters) and the stiffling heat and 99% humidity make it the perfect nursery for all kinds of riotously colorful flowers and gigantic palms, pandans and trees that look like they could eat you for breakfast.

The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary rescues sick, abandoned and abused (kept as domestic pets) orang utans, gives them medical care, and strives to gradually reintroduce them into the wild. We’re sure it is a better fate than dieing from disease or stravation, but we’re not certain as to the success of the program and have some questions about the seemingly overexposure to humans during the “rehabilitation.” In addition to the twice daily exposure to tourists like us, they spend massive amounts of time with their human “mentors.” We need to do a little research…

We took a short hike into the sanctuary and, like clockwork, the orang utans came swinging in for the 3 o’clock feeding at the feeding platform. And, also like clockwork, a few dozen tourists — ourselved included — started snapping pictures. The orang utans had no fear of us and we can only hope that they enjoyed the show we put on. They certainly weren’t learning to fend for themselves or be wary of humans.

Tame and zoolike as is was, it was still very cool to see the “men of the forest” in one of only two places in the world where they exist in the wild (Borneo and Sumatra). Orang utans are supposed to be 96.4% similar to humans. I suppose the remaining 3.6% is about more advanced language skills and the desire for iPods.

On our return to the “resort” we stumbled upon the new(er) accommodations and immediately upgraded to the $25 air-con, tiled room with CNN and a view of the grounds. At this point, we probably would have paid anything to escape the steaming jungle heat; it was well over 100 degrees and we were totally wrung out.

True confession: The next day, we lingered in our air-con room watching a very bad Keanu Reeves movie until check-out time. Then we ventured into Sandakan, explored the market, searched for more air-con and wished we had booked an earlier flight back to Kota Kinabalu.

Next up: Looking for Michael Jackson: Negara Brunei Darussalam (Brunei, the Abode of Peace)


AccomodationsCoralLizardWaterAlan (boring technical note):

Okay, I think I have the thumbnails working on this post so that you can click on the tiny images and get a larger view. I know the image sizes have been inconsistent from post to post and I’ll use the excuse that I’m trying to work the technical issues from frikken’ BORNEO. <>


Admit it. Some of you have seen an episode or two of “Survivor.” Maybe you even watched “Survivor – Borneo”, you know, a reality soap opera that takes place on some exotic, humid island where buff dudes and buxom babes annoy the heck out of each other and the viewer.

We decided we had to visit one of the islands of Borneo. There is indeed a tour to Palau Tiga (“Survivor Island”), but we opted for the closer Manukan instead.

Again, assuming some of you have seen the show, you know when Jeff Probst comes zooming in on some hot yacht and takes the winners of a “reward challenge” to some buccolic little island get-away? Well, we stayed at one of those places.

We took a speed boat (not as swanky as Jeff’s, but fast enough) to the island where we were greeted by a young woman who introduced herself as our personal butler. After lunch, she escorted us to our “room” so that she could explain a few things. Because Manukan is managed by the national parks service (like Kinabalu Park) we knew our room would be fine.

Oh yes. It was just fine. It was similar to our “cabin” at Kinabalu except that it was TWO STORIES (think condo/chalet) with two wrap-around, ocean view balconies, satellite TV (our first look at CNN and BBC World), a separate “sitting room” with armoire and dressing table (again with the Q-tips and make-up remover pads), and did we mention OCEAN VIEW? Our butler showed us around and then presented us with welcome drinks and cold towels from our refrigerator.

We finally dragged ourself out of this exhorbitantly-priced ($50) hovel to explore a bit of the island: almost NO people on one very long stretch of beach but a couple of 3-foot long monitor lizards to keep us company, crystal clear warm water that was perfect for snorkeling, psychadelic tropical fish swimming through coral reefs, clear blue skies, dramatic sunset. A perfect two days.

Next up: It’s a Jungle Out There: Orang Utans