I got 99 islands
After spending 4.5 days enjoying some quality time, Thanksgiving fanfare, and delicious eats (more on this below) with Jen and Kevin in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head to Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands off the coast of Malaysia. This was Tyler’s second visit to the islands, but he had managed to forget enough about his first trip to make it feel like a new experience.
Langkawi has some of the most beautiful (and expensive) resorts around, but given our budget and desire to be near the town area to experience the food/culture, we decided to stay in a refurbished sewer tube. The Tubotel – the brainchild of a strange Eastern European man trying to appeal to Japanese and Korean tourists – consisted of 15ish sewer tubes (we assume new but who really knows) turned into “rooms” consisting of 2 single beds smashed together and some space underneath the beds to store your bags (and a fan and a desk lamp). The common space of restaurant and bar area was done up very nicely – clearly trying to make it have a sort of club feel – but the shared bathroom left a lot to be desired. It sort of resembled a medium-priced campsite’s bathroom facilities – terrible/no water pressure, no toilet paper/soap oftentimes, and not exactly clean. If I had been paying campsite prices, I wouldn’t have cared. But the included breakfast was delicious. The free bikes were rusty, wobbly, and required Ahhnold-like strength to go anywhere, but they existed, so there’s that.
What made the Tube worth it, though, was the view. Despite its inconvenient location to the beach and town areas (via foot/bike), it was right on the water and provided absolutely spectacular sunrises, sunsets, and everything in between. We were also pretty close to the airport and could watch the planes as they neared landing, which was especially awesome at night (see Tyler’s pictures). And, we stayed in a tube. Just being able to say that makes whatever annoyances (including many mosquito bites) worth it.
For one of our mornings, we decided to go on a 3-stop tour to 2 islands and 1 eagle-spotting area. Rather than book with the tour company from the hotel, we decided to save some money and book with the “sale” tour agency that we found in town. Big mistake. Though we got picked up and pulled up to a boat that looked relatively safe, our captain was insane (and also didn’t speak English). He was Malay, so likely not drunk (because they’re mostly Muslim), though he acted that way. They piled ~25 of us on a boat that is only supposed to have 12 people and we were off. On multiple occasions, the “captain” would leave the wheel while the boat was going full-speed-ahead while he attended to some other inconsequential matter. And then, he assaulted one of the male passengers (who looked Iranian) because he innocently tried to stand up and walk to the front to take a picture. Apparently this was against a rule that we were not made aware of. Rather than just say “HEY”, the captain left the wheel (again) and grabbed the guy by the shirt/life jacket (which there weren’t enough of on the boat) and threw him to the ground screaming something in Malay. It was scary and bizarre (and slightly amusing, but only because it didn’t happen to us). Both island stops were marginally interesting. 1 had a large freshwater lake with catfish that would bite at your toes when you dangled your feet in the water. The other had a decent beach, but with all of the Muslim tourists/locals, I felt super uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit (the women swim with all of their clothes on – headscarves and all). So we sat under a tree and read books, which was lovely.
A note on that. I dress pretty conservatively, in general, the vast majority of the time. I always have. Blame it on my own cultural norms and the very ingrained idea that a woman shouldn’t show off all her goods (especially when she’s married). For our trip, I packed conservatively – long shorts, skirts, dresses, lots of shirts with sleeves, etc. But even with my conscience and desire to respect all cultural norms and blend in as best as possible, I felt uncomfortable wearing a spaghetti strap shirt in Langkawi. Maybe since I’m Indian, the expectation is that even if I’m not Muslim, I should be at least as conservative as Indian Malays, who also swim in their clothes and walk around covered up almost entirely. It’s REALLY hot – I can barely handle wearing jeans for more than an hour in these countries, so my compromise is conservative-ish summer clothes. I suppose if we had stayed at a nice Western resort, I wouldn’t have faced any of this because I would’ve been surrounded by white people in bikinis and speedos. I’m thankful for the experience, and I’m glad I chose not to partake in an act that would’ve made me and countless people around me uncomfortable, even if it was just as simple as swimming in a bikini.
Despite that one slightly weird day, we had an incredible time exploring the land and water sites of the island. We rented a scooter one day and scooted our way to the cable car for the most spectacular views of the islands, some other tucked-away beaches, and a driving range where Tyler managed to get pictures of me looking like Billy Madison (so I’m not a golfer – does that surprise any of you?). We were tipped off by a strange American woman who has lived on the island for years and runs some sort of online “Langkawi news” service that we HAD to go this delicious all-you-can-eat sushi dinner for about $15 — uh, you don’t have to convince us to eat sushi. It was incredibly fresh and tasty with so many varieties of sashimi and rolls, and we sat at a table with a variety of characters I cannot even pretend to describe. I haven’t seen “Dinner for Schmucks” but I imagine I don’t need to now since everyone at our table was certainly schmuck-like. It was random and entertaining.
We also went snorkeling at the marine national park. Tyler had snorkeled there previously and was sad to hear Bubba the Barracuda (a frequent visitor to the park) had died. The snorkeling was really great – 5th best of the trip behind Belize, Bonito (Brazil), Coiba Island (Panama), and Sapi Island in Malaysian Borneo (also part of a marine national park). Though much of the coral was dead, there were still large schools of fish including huge angel fish, stick fish, clown fish, giant grouper, and a number of baby sharks. I also thought I saw an eel, but when I turned away to get Tyler’s attention, I couldn’t find it again. He thinks I saw a stick. I think he’s jealous.
After a lovely 5 days, we said goodbye to Langkawi and headed back to Kuala Lumpur for one night. One of Tyler’s best friends from college, Azher, flew in the same day from Washington DC to spend a 9-day vacation with us in Malaysia. We took a cab to Jen and Kevin’s apartment and then made our way to Batu Caves, just outside KL. It is a series of limestone hills with caves and cave temples. The caves are massive, especially considering you’re still in the city. There are multiple Hindu temples inside and an absolutely MASSIVE statute of the Hindu God Murugan. This brand of Hinduism is one I’m not familiar with (most Malay Indians are of South Indian Tamil heritage which has a very different religion and culture than my North Indian Gujarati self), so every time Azher or Tyler asked me a question about a statue/prayer/custom/outfit/God, I either made something up or said “how am I supposed to know? There’s a billion of us!” Helpful, I know.
The Caves are considered a Must-See in KL – which isn’t saying much because KL doesn’t really have a lot to see, tourism-wise. That said, it does have amazing food and a unique blend of cultures and ethnicities. Some of our favorite restaurants included Hakka, Passage Thru India, and a dim sum place in one of the many gigantic shopping malls. To top it all off, for my birthday (eeeeek 29!!!! though it was the first birthday I celebrated with Jen in 8 years, so that’s pretty awesome), we went to El Cerdo – a delicious European restaurant with suckling pig and pork knuckle on the menu. Not only did I get to break a plate and be the center of the restaurant’s attention for a few minutes as I broke my bad luck and wished for a lifetime of love, but we ate at least a week’s worth of “the other white meat” in a predominately Muslim country while celebrating the birthday of a self-declared Hindu. Say what? Exactly. Happy 29th birthday to me, made all the sweeter by a surprise black forest cake (my absolute favorite) from the husband and a 1.5 hour long skype call with my brother. 29 has already been amazing, and it’s only been 2 days. But I have gotten ahead of myself, because I still have a week of Malaysian Borneo adventures with Azher to discuss! ‘Til the next episode…