Sunday, September 01, 2013

Letters Home: First Days in Langkawi, Malaysia

This is the first in a series of posts that will be based on email message that I've sent to friends and family while on sabbatical in South East Asia. Posts will be edited slightly, but will keep the general form of a letter.

August 25, 2013

Hi Mom,

It has been a couple of days, so I thought I'd drop you a note.

We arrived safely in Langkawi about 31 hours after leaving your house. It was about ten o'clock at night when we arrived at our "hotel," and all we could do was drag ourselves to bed and crash. The crashing continued for the whole next day. Luckily our hotel, Temple Tree, is a kind of resort, so there was enough to do and see just outside our door. Here's a link to the website for the place: It is very interesting to look at if you get the chance. The place is named after a sacred tree and temple that is on the compound where people still come to pray.

By the way, Langkawi is a small resort island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. In fact, we're closer to Thailand now than to the mainland of Malaysia. Here's some info from Wikipedia: Langkawi, officially known as Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah (Malay: Langkawi Permata Kedah) is an archipelago of 104 islands in the Andaman Sea, some 30 km off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia. The islands are a part of the state of Kedah, which is adjacent to the Thai border. I've been told that there are far fewer islands at low tide, as some smaller islands become connected when the sea level is lower.

The "hotel" is really a compound made up of buildings from various Malaysian traditions. The buildings were all moved from other parts of Malaysia to the site and re-constructed (many buildings in this part of the world are intentionally built to be taken apart and put back together). The first two nights we stayed in a room that is part of a former plantation workers' quarters. It was a great room--very big and nicely furnished (much better than what the original occupants had, I'm sure). Now I'm writing from a different room that was also on a plantation, but this one is two-story.

One interesting thing is that the buildings are designed for maximum natural ventilation (traditional homes apparently didn't have air conditioning). So the walls are all made up of jalousied wooden slats, and around the roof line are ornate wooden latices to allow the air to flow through. The ceilings are peaked and about fifteen to twenty feet high at the highest point. Luckily we also have actual electric A/C, and so are often cold in the room despite the outside heat (about ninety degrees and humid).

Another interesting thing is the proliferation of birds. As dawn approaches the birds start to "sing," and soon it sounds like we're in the middle of a jungle (which isn't far off). Most of the birds are species of myna, and they are really noisy. They make a really wide range of sounds, from tweets and whistles to grunts and caws. They are interesting to watch, as they are really active and curious. We've also seen black-naped oriels (sorry about the spelling) which are mostly bright yellow, and some very large wading birds like cranes or something, as well as a few others that I haven't identified yet. One of the most interesting sights of birds we've seen so far was a flock of some kind of white wading birds circling over some rice paddies. They were far in the distance, but the sun hit them just right so that they looked like shining silver flakes swirling around the sky. It was kind of a "National Geographic" moment.

We've also seen a LOT of geckos. They are everywhere, inside and out, and for that I'm thankful as they eat a lot of insects.

We saw some squirrels that look pretty much like the ones in Seattle, except for being smaller and thinner. We also saw a Malaysian black giant squirrel, which is basically the same shape as a regular squirrel but is black with a light brown face and underside, and a tail with longer hair than a gray squirrel. Also, it was about as long as my arm from nose to tip of tail (the squirrel's nose and tail, not mine).

Other animals we've seen are mostly water buffalo, which seem to be pretty common. We've seen a lot of them along the roadside, wallowing in mud or just standing around. I'm not sure what they are used for, as tractors seem to be doing most of the work in the fields.

The last animal I'll mention for now is the common house cat. It seems the proprietors of the resort have some relationship with a local animal shelter, so the whole compound is overrun with cats of all sizes, shapes, colors, and dispositions. I'm not sure how this is a "shelter," since the cats run around loose all over the place, but apparently many have been rescued from abusive situations (some have deformities--especially truncated tails). The cats are not annoying other than that they constantly try to get into our room when we open the door, but they are generally either friendly or aloof, and mostly look well fed and clean.

Oh! I forgot to mention the dogs, and am now reminded of them because they all just started barking and howling. I've only seen one or two, but obviously there are many more just out of sight because every once in a while they erupt in fits of howling or barking or both. Malaysia is mostly muslim, and apparently dogs are one of the animals that muslim people do not like very much. For this reason there are relatively few stray or pet dogs (compared to either Taiwan in the former, or the U.S. in the latter).

As far as the people go, so far it is hard to tell who is a tourist and who is a local, but in either case it is an eclectic mix. Indian, Chinese, and European are blended in, and as I said before many people are Muslim (a lot of women wear head scarves, although they are not required by law as they are in some more conservative countries). It is much more heterogeneous than Taiwan, although not quite as mixed as what you'd see visiting the Pike Place Market during the busy tourist season (I've seen very few African-looking people, for example). One good thing is that Malaysians are fairly well-known for being laid back and friendly, and so far that has been what we have experienced, particularly at the resort. In fact, when we first arrived a man took us into the lobby of the main building, sat us down, and before anything else gave us cold drinks (I had a beer). He then went over all the amenities as well as some of the history of the place. They even carried our bags to our room, a service that I have not even seen in five-star hotels and that I thought had gone the way of the dodo.

We don't really need to leave the resort for anything. The food is very good and they do everything for us. There are three pools, two bars, two restaurants, a "library," wifi everywhere on the compound (a bit weak and spotty, but better than nothing), a tiny pool table, laundry service, massages, yoga classes, etc. There's even a classica guitar that is listed as one of the ammenities, but it cannot be tuned because the knobs on several tuners are missing or broken. However, it is expensive. The room is more than we can afford, and the food is about four times as expensive as it is in restaurants outside the place. We really only planned to stay two nights, but we (okay, I) was so tired that we decided to stay an extra night.

Now it is about 8:30 a.m. and we are eating breakfast in our room (cake, toast, fruit, yogurt, coffee/tea provided each day). We need to check out by noon, and move somewhere else more affordable. We plan to go about a thirty minutes walk from here to stay in a small cabin by the beach (beautiful beaches here) for a couple days. This will cost us about one sixth of what it costs to stay at the Temple Tree where we are now, and will mark the beginning of our real shoestring travels.

Well, I'd better go, but we'll be in touch and send some pictures (or a link to somewhere you can see our pictures) soon.


Mike and Lucy

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