Malaysia


My week in Malaysia was probably the most stressful and painful of my whole trip. If I’ve been able to talk with you in person I’m sure you’ve already heard about the beach incident, but I’ll recount the whole week here.

I was looking forward to traveling to Malaysia. I had heard great things about the country as a whole. Because of seasonal rains and a lack of planning, I decided against visiting the eastern peninsula and the Borneo side. Looking at a calendar, I figured I had about two weeks before I needed to be in Phuket to take a freediving course so I decided to take my time and just go without a plan. I had a rough idea that I would travel by bus up the west coast, stopping in Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang before finally hitting the beach in Thailand.
One redeeming quality of Malaysia

I basically had to be kicked out of Singapore. I don’t know whether I truly loved Singapore or whether it was a welcome change of pace after six weeks in SE Asia, but I ended up staying almost twice as long as I had planned. One of the owners of the hostel I stayed at¬†eventually put me on a bus headed for Johor Baru where I would pass through immigration on my way to Melaka. The border crossing was in two stages, both requiring disembarkation. We first had to pass through the Singapore side, get back on the bus, then get off at the Malaysian side. As soon as I got my passport stamped, the chaos of SE Asia returned. Without any signs indicating where to go, I ended up following a group of people from my bus who were not going where I needed to. I tried to go back but the corridor was one way so a police officer (who spoke perfect English) stopped me. He informed me that I needed to go a different way but that would spit me out in no man’s land so I would have to go back through immigration. I did this, but the non-English speaking immigration officer did not understand what had happened. My passport indicated I had already entered Malaysia and that I hadn’t left. Finally a supervisor was able to figure out what happened and waved me through.

I went to the bus terminal to pick up the bus to Melaka. The bus was an hour late but Malaysia has a very good road network so the ride was not terribly dusty or bumpy. Eventually I made it to Melaka, found the bus that took me into town, and found my hostel. The dorm did not have any windows; I found this to be the case in every hostel I visited in Malaysia but nowhere else.

An abandoned building in Melaka

Melaka is a former Dutch and British colony; the old part of town consists of buildings from this period. In my wanderings, I found an abandoned building, just behind the heavily trafficked historic buildings, that appeared to be the same style architecturally. Without any regard for my personal safety, I wandered inside. I discovered that the building had been an art gallery as recently as five years ago but was no longer in use. No one else was around and I had a great time exploring.

Doorway blocked with debris

I am able to recognize it now, after documenting my daily activities for three months, but I have a tendency to explore places that are abandoned, the highest point in the area, and the lowest. In this case, the building was near the top of the hill so I was able to get two things out of my system in one go.

Melaka waterfront, trees undewater
I also rented a bicycle and rode around for a morning. This was the first and only time I have ever had to ride on the left side of the road. This didn’t cause any problems, but I had to remember to look over my right shoulder instead of instinctively looking over the left. On my wanderings, I headed right to the water. I never realized it before this trip but I find being around water to be very calming. The two years since I graduated were the first two in my life where I wasn’t swimming on a regular basis. I didn’t notice it at the time but I believe that I by not swimming I had unintentionally removed a key component of my stress management system from my life. It wasn’t until I was in Asia that I realized that any time I got stressed I naturally ended up at the beach. This will be discussed in much greater detail later in this post.
Petronas Towers on NYE
After two nights I was ready to continue onto Kuala Lumpur. KL is where I was turned off to Malaysia. After getting off the bus, I walked a short distance to the train to get into the city. There were no signs anywhere. The platforms were not labeled and no transit system map existed in the station. There was no indication that I was the only person who was confused because in every station I went to in KL there were transit system employees stationed next to each fare machine to help you buy the proper fare for your destination (which may include transfers between different transit systems). I had instructions that my hostel was only a few blocks from the subway station, but due to a lack of maps and signage, it took me nearly an hour just to orientate myself.
Celebrating the end of 2012 in KL
Disorientation was the theme of my time in KL. Generally, I am able to figure out where I am quickly and draw a mental map of the city in my head. KL and Phuket both really turned me around. Phuket was not difficult, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it for whatever reason. KL seemed to have grown up too quickly. There are several places where major roads don’t have pedestrian crossings for at least a kilometer. The subway was so crowded on New Year’s Eve that I chose to walk back to my hostel after watching the fireworks from the Petronas Towers. What should have been a forty minute walk turned into just over two hours because I kept getting turned around and stuck on the wrong side of roads without pedestrian crossings.

Batu Caves

This confusion regarding the transit system continued when I tried to go to Batu Caves. I tried to buy a ticket to Batu Caves but the operator of the train I was at isn’t the same as the one that goes to Batu Caves. The transit map is fully integrated so there was no way to know where I had to go to for a connecting train that sold the correct tickets. The guy whose job it is to help people buy fares told me which station to go to, and after getting there, I still wandered around for about twenty minutes as there are two physical buildings at the station, each of which sell different tickets, and I couldn’t find the appropriate one. The caves were worth the trip, especially as I was able to climb a long staircase to go up to the cave, and then descend deep into another, satisfying my desire to climb things and descend.

Although I had heard good things about the Cameron Highlands and I still had some time to play around in Malaysia, I was getting very frustrated and wanted to get to the beach in Thailand as quickly as possible. When entering Thailand by land Americans are granted a fourteen day visa. Given my schedule, I still had a few days that I needed to spend in Malaysia so that I wouldn’t run into visa problems.

Hiking through the park in Penang

I decided to leave KL and headed to Penang. The main tourist spot in Penang is George Town which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this point I was on an island and I wanted to go to the beach. I took the bus out to a park where there are hiking trails that lead to several beaches. I set out for a hike, ready to give Malaysia one last chance to impress me.

Due to beach and trail closures, my route was already picked for me. Hike out past two beaches, stop for a swim at the third, and depending on the weather/time I could continue onto a final beach. I passed the first two beaches and the rain was holding off. It was a pretty quiet day but there were several other hikers out so I felt comfortable going into the water for a swim whenever I made it to the third beach where I had planned my swim.

Doesn’t the beach look so inviting?

I found a small area, surrounded by rocks and out of sight to hide my bag and clothes. I hopped into the ocean and felt so comfortable. It was the first time I had been in the water since my scuba trip over a month earlier and I was desperate for a good swim. I swam half way down the beach when I stopped to tread water for a minute and look where I was going. As soon as my legs dropped below my torso I felt a familiar pain in my lower left leg and foot. The only other time I have been stung by a jellyfish I nearly blacked out in the water, so, given that the beach was nearly deserted and I didn’t know how many minutes behind me the other hikers were, I tried to stop moving entirely and drift onto the beach.

The tentacle wrapped around
my leg, creating a nice band

Fortunately this sting was nothing compared to the last one I had, but I didn’t know how severe it was. I slowly limped back to the rock encircled area I had left my bag and sat on the beach to soak the sting and scrub it with some sand. At this point, the monkeys who lived on the beach decided to hit me up for some food (of which I had none). They climbed onto the rocks which surrounded me and began to bare their teeth. I’ve been around other animals in attack mode before, but staring the head monkey in the eyes scared me more than almost any other time in my life. I didn’t know what to do as I was still in pain from the sting, I wasn’t thinking clearly, I couldn’t escape, and I had nothing with me with which to distract the monkeys. Eventually I got fed up with the situation, started screaming at the monkeys, they slowly realized I had no food, and left one at a time.

Once the monkeys were gone, I grabbed my stuff and ran off the beach, leg still stinging, and into the jungle. Finally clear of the monkeys, I put my shoes back one and started hiking as fast as possible back to the park entrance and the bus. I tried to explore a little more of George Town that night but I was unsuccessful in cleaning out the sting and new venom kept being released when I would walk. So, I mustered up the strength to walk to the ticket office and bought a ticket to Phuket. The beach was Malaysia’s last chance to win me over and she blew it.

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