Friday, September 06, 2013

Letters Home #2: Goodbye Langkawi, Hello Georgetown

Thursday, September 05, 2013
W & O Hostel, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Dear _,
  
To catch you up on things, Lucy and I have finished the “honeymoon” phase of our trip. That was spent on an island called Langkawi. It is a little resort island that has a lot of natural beauty, but not much else. Unfortunately it has been swallowed up by tourism, which I think is like the cancer of such places. It was a weird place. It’s clearly a destination for a lot of people from the region, as well as the Mid-east and Europe. Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, there are a lot of Muslim tourists there. Those folks have a lot of kids, and they don’t seem to mind taking them on vacation with them. This was a bit of a nuisance, because there were kids running all over the place making a lot of noise. Parents seem to be pretty indulgent compare to the way I was raised. It’s not that I have anything against kids, but when you’re trying to have a relaxing vacation the last thing you want to hear is some kid screaming.

Although the place was beautiful, pretty much all of the tourist attractions were disappointing—or they would have been if I’d expected much in the first place. Most of the place seemed to have been abandoned and/or falling into disrepair. One fellow we talked to said it was because each time there is an election old initiatives are dropped and new ones started (probably to enrich the new incumbents and their cronies). Also, I kind of felt like I was just a walking dollar sign with the local taxi drivers and restaurateurs lining up to fleece me. You can’t really blame them, as that’s how they make their living, but it is pretty annoying when you hire a driver for the day and he tries to make you go to attractions where he clearly gets a kickback for steering you that way.

Still, we managed to have a pretty good time. Probably the best part was either going to the beach—a mere few steps from our motel door—or when we went to a waterfall. The waterfall was great because when we first got there we were the only ones there. It was a 200 meter fall with a big pool where you could dive in from the rocks and swim around. The water was cool (much cooler than the ocean), but not so cold that you couldn’t stay in for a while (it’s rain water, not ice melt). Unfortunately after about half an hour a bus full of people showed up and pretty soon it was super crowded. It was really nice for a while, though. The beaches were great, too. Sand, warm green water, and the sun was not too hot.

One thing that I didn’t really realize that was so great about the place is that, since the government made the whole island a duty-free zone, beer was really cheap there. In the convenience stores it was about 75 cents to a dollar per can, but in the duty free I could get Chang (a Thai beer) for about 50 cents. In the restaurants it was two or three bucks per beer, and I thought that was exorbitant. Then we left for another place, and it turns out that even at the convenience store beer is about three bucks a can. That’s because it is a Muslim country and alcohol is generally a no-no. In fact, at 7-11 there is a sign by the beer cooler that says something like “Alcoholic beverages are for sale to our non-Muslim customers only.” I don’t know how they can tell if someone is Muslim, but I suppose there is some system in place (or maybe it is the honor system, which calls into question the need for a sign).

Anyway, now I’ve noticed that in restaurants beers can cost ten or fifteen US dollars. I know that the prices in the US aren’t that far different, but damn it, when I go to a developing nation I expect to pay developing nation prices for the one luxury I enjoy!

Well, at least I’ll probably lose some weight.

We left Langkawi (by the way, it’s in the Malaysian state of Kedah, which borders Thailand) a few days ago and took a ferry to another island further south in the state of Penang. I think the island is called Penang Island, but I’m not sure. We’re staying in a place called Georgetown, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It goes back to the old days of the East India Company and beyond. So far I really like the feel of this place as opposed to Langkawi. That place was full of vacationers, whereas here there are a lot more of what I would consider travelers. The difference is basically that people here seem to be here for the experience, not just to take their families somewhere (theme park v museum?). Also, it is a lot more Chinese. It might seem weird that the Chinese influence makes me more comfortable, but after living in Taiwan for ten years, it seems more like home here.

The first night we stayed in a historic building that is run by some Chinese people and is all done up to look historic. I assume Lucy took some photos, but I don’t have any to send to you at the moment. It was pretty nice, but none of the hostels here have rooms with bathrooms, so you have to share with other guests. Unfortunately all the other guests seemed to be Chinese ladies who decided to use the only sinks to wash out their laundry. Also, the walls were paper thin (all the walls were obviously just slapped up to divide up the space into little rooms). Beers there were 9.80 Ringits, or about US$3. That’s when I first suffered sticker shock, but I thought it was just the hostel was overpriced. It wasn’t until later that I found almost the same price at 7-11.

They were booked after that so we crossed the street and got a room at a place called the Western & Oriental. That’s where we’re staying now. Beers are as low as 6 Ringits, or about a buck eighty. The guy told me that they are smuggled in from the duty free zone (at a healthy markup). This place is dumpier, and there’s no air conditioning. That’s okay, but the bigger problem is it is really noisy at night. Last night there were a few guys reveling in the lobby until after 3 a.m. It’s not that they were so loud, but our room overhangs the lobby and the walls are very permeable. Luckily I was tired enough that it didn’t make a big difference.

We spent the first day walking around the historical district, but I can’t tell you much about it. It pretty much looks like any other place I’ve seen in Asia. It’s really busy, has lots of crazy traffic, and is generally rundown looking. Walking along the street you pass all kinds of restaurants that seem to exude food poisoning. We also went to a museum, but I won’t bore you with the details. It was kind of a museum of history and industry, and I’ll leave it at that.

Currently I’m sitting in the hostel lobby sipping an expensive can of beer and uploading wedding photos to my Flickr account (take a look if you want: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shortymethod/). I’ll be posting more and more photos there as time goes on, so that would be a good place to get a glimpse of what we are seeing over here. I also posted some stuff to our blog: http://slowtravelinsoutheastasia.wordpress.com.

Lucy and I are trying to chronicle our trip here, but so far I’ve been pretty negative about it—not so much our trip in particular, but about travel in general. It’s been a long standing opinion of mine that travel is a marketing gimmick and that people should just stay close to home to get more value from their leisure time. Of course utility cannot be measured from one person to the other—what is valuable to one person can be worthless or even of negative value to another. But I think if people looked critically at their own travel experiences, as well as their motivations to travel, they would come to similar conclusions. In a lot of ways I think travel is just a fashion, a way of trying to establish an identity and of separating oneself from everyone else.

I suppose that brings up the question as to why I’m traveling at all. I don’t have a good answer for that. After being in Asia for about twenty percent of my life, I suppose I just wanted to take a look around before settling down. After all, for the most part I’ve hardly left that one town in Taiwan the whole time I’ve been overseas. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, if nothing else, travel—and especially travel on the cheap—really makes you appreciate the standard of living we enjoy in the states, at least for those who can afford it.

Well, I’d better sign off here. Drop me a line and let me know what’s going on with you.


-M

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