Kuala Lumpur | Malaysia

 

From Singapore I caught a flight on Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Air Asia flies into the discount airport, KLCC, and from there you can either catch a taxi into town (pricy) or catch a bus that goes into KL Sentral.  From there I was told to hire a cab to take me to the place I was staying at.  A driver approached me as I disembarked the bus.  He quoted me a price to which I naively accepted and not even ten minutes later, I was at my accommodations.

I should have haggled.  I should have been wary of anyone who approaches me with any kind of service.  I had been ripped off.  Now I don’t blame the driver for this as much as my naiveté.  It’s not his fault that I decided not to do proper and adequate research.  Still, it left a bitter taste.

The next day after realizing I had been ripped off, I spent the morning in my room.  From my window I could see the city sprawled out before me, but I didn’t want to leave.  I had left beautiful Singapore for this?  On the way from the airport, all I saw were freeways and rows upon rows of palm trees.  Where is the jungle?  Where is the vibrant bustling city I had expected?

Some time in the afternoon I coaxed myself out of the apartment.  I had found the weather in Singapore to be perfect.  After all, I like the heat, I like the humidity.  Here, I sweated even when I stood still.  I don’t feel the heat, I just feel myself sweating.  Crossing the street seemed to be a formidable task for me.  As I left one neighborhood, horn blared, music blasted onto the sidewalk from shop interiors, traffic stood still, people shouted things.  On and on and on I went and everywhere, chaos, noise, frenzy.  I was overwhelmed.

For six hours I walked that day in the heat, sweating, overwhelmed, wondering what have I done?  Eyes were on me.  Feeling uncomfortable, I found my way to the Bukit Bintang area, a touristy place filled with shopping malls.  From the streets, massage parlor after parlor hollered at me, “Reflexology! Massage! Fish pedicure!  Good price!”

That evening I went back to my room, where I curled up in my bed.  I also had my first lesson about the tropical heat.  That while I don’t feel it, I still need to hydrate.  As a result, dehydration took over.  Curled up in bed, I laid there hoping the three nights I had left would pass.  And then out of thin air, I heard the most beautiful sound.  A song.  A man’s voice rolling sounds over a speaker in a language I did not know.  I opened my window and listened to the call to prayer.  I had never heard it before.  At first it is eerie how this sound seemingly comes out of nowhere.  It is beautiful.  I watched the twinkling lights of the city listening to this song.

It took one whole day for me to feel better again.  When I did, I got myself on the public transportation and navigated my way to Batu Caves.  Yes, it is crowded with tourists.  Yes, there is trash everywhere and it can feel packed and dirty.  But still, I find it beautiful that there is this temple inside a cave.  Much like how I found the call to prayer beautiful.  When I reached the temple inside, I sat down on the dirt floor and watched the people move about.  Some took photos of each other; some created beautiful long shadows in the sunlight that angled down through the opening of the caves.  It was a moment of peace and it felt good to have it.  Listening to the flapping of wings inside the cave, the flutter of leaves, the shuffling of feet.

I found Kuala Lumpur a hard city to love, but I don’t think that it’s any of the city’s fault.  I think it had a lot to do of where I was mentally.  Singapore had been a safe city, and KL was different.  Different from Singapore, different from home.  It was a good lesson, but I’m not in any rush to go back.

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Have I ever truly been here?

 

Good evening from Borneo.  Kuching, Sarawak to be exact.  On a whim I came here and it has been transformative–mostly in that it has given me some time to reflect and think about my experience so far.  This post isn’t about Borneo–it’s about Galang Refugee Camp on the Riau Islands of Indonesia, a 45 minute ferry ride from Singapore.

I have been gone four weeks.  One month.  In a way it hasn’t felt like anything.  In a way it has felt like a lifetime.  Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang:  all cities.  Great food, but cities.  Easy to photograph.  Easy to think about.  Instead of starting elsewhere (like Vietnam or Laos) and working my way down to Singapore, I sort of went backwards.  I think most people who do Southeast Asia end in Singapore. The reason I decided to start in Singapore was that I wanted to visit the refugee camp that I was born in.  I was only there for a month before coming to the United States, I wanted to see it.  I wanted to see what my parents saw.  I wanted to be where they stood, where they waited, luckier than most, for their onward plane to a better place–somewhere they had wanted to get to so bad they were willing to gamble their lives.  What is that like?  Putting your life on the line?

 

From Singapore, I caught the Batam Fast Ferry to the City Center.  Once there I tried to hire a cab to take me to Galang Refugee camp, but none of the drivers understood where I wanted to go.  As I sat down thinking about what to do, all I knew was that I could not give up.  I did not come all this way only to be turned away once reaching the islands.  It didn’t take long, but I came up with pictures pulled on my phone (thank you T-Mobile free international data roaming) and showed the man who was directing the cabs.  ”Oh, you go Vietnam!  Vietnam!”  Yes, yes, I nodded my head, I don’t care what you call it, please, take me there.  He quoted me a price that I didn’t bother to haggle. I probably could have gotten it for less.  I was too excited and so happy someone understood me, I could care less what I had to pay.  This is a place I have to see.  The one checkmark I had to make.  I could go without seeing any of the other places, but I had to see my birthplace.

 

For some reason, I was passed from one driver to another and ended up with a man named Wadi.  As soon as I got into his cab, he immediately started offering me things: water, snacks, and cigarettes all the while smiling as if this had been the best day he’s had in some time.  He spoke poor English.  I knew absolutely no Bahasa.  Despite not smoking anymore and initially turning them down, I decided to have a cigarette.  So there I was, in a cab, window down, the warm breeze beating at my face, smoking a clove cigarette next to man named Wadi.  Cloves smell wonderful and they can no longer be gotten in America.Everywhere fires burned on the island.  No need to worry about smoking as I doubt the air could be any safer to breathe.  The smoke burrowed its way down into my organs and while it didn’t necessarily hurt or ache, it was uncomfortable to breathe with that film coating my lungs.

 

I didn’t know what to expect, what I would see, how I would feel.  I roamed about taking photographs.  Every few minutes I turned to check to see if Wadi was still there.  What would I do if he decided to turn around and leave me?  We had stopped to get gas earlier and he asked for gas money, but I told him I was only going to pay what we had agreed on, so I naively gave him the entire sum.  I know I had nothing to worry about, but as this was my first experience traveling on my own, my nerves were shot. He could ditch me.  He no longer had an obligation to me since he already received payment.  I immediately felt ashamed for thinking about the situation in that light.  Wadi is not an unscrupulous man.

 

Here I am in this place that I was born, but I have never really been here. Every time I looked anywhere, I wondered, will this be familiar, will I know it?  Of course not.  I had been here before I had developed a consciousness.  We pass the cemetery, stopped at the replica boats the refugees boarded, crammed and stuffed to the brim, suffocating and starving, to escape Vietnam.  Then we were at the visitor’s center, where there is a makeshift museum filled with photos, paintings, and a souvenir shop (!).  I don’t know what kind of souvenirs you would want to buy, but no thank you. I don’t know much about the place.  My mother is, understandably, mum on the subject.  I cannot even begin to imagine the horrors she had endured.  It wasn’t until my sister got married that I even found out my mother is a actually a Cambodian national.  At eight years old she left Cambodia for Vietnam and at 15 she had to flee Vietnam as well.  What was it like?  At eight years old having to run for your life?  And again not much later?  Whatever her faults her, I will always think of her in the best possible light.  She is strong.  Inspirational barely cuts it.

 

There are two Galang sites according to my stepfather, who also spent some time there before processing onwards.  Most of what I saw was Galang II.  We came across the crumbled wings of the hospital.  The rooms were hard to enter as debris blocked the passages.  Nesting in the dimly lit rooms that were much cooler than outside were bats.  A few flew past as I entered  Still I did not let them deter me.  I wanted to see the rooms.  Could I have been born here?  Then one started flying at my face, its claws (I think) extended and aiming for my eyes.  My nerves were already shot.  I didn’t think I could be braver than what I already was.  Later my mother tells me it was on Galang I I had been born, not here. Good thing I didn’t risk getting my face scratched at by bats.After the hospital we went to the religious center.  I saw the old Catholic church and I wonder if my stepfather spent time there.  I saw the rickety wooden bridge with missing planks, holes, and cautiously proceed across.  I had not even bothered to look around to see if there was another more viable path.  After I left the church, I noticed cars were driving across a modern concrete bridge, a totally solid and stable one.  Next time I must look around before putting myself at risk walking across something so rickety.As I was photographing the area, I noticed a sign that pointed up toward a hill for a buddhist church.  My driver was nowhere in sight, but I decided to go forward.  As I walked up the slope, I hear some whistling, the sound of air being hissed through the back of teeth.  I turned to see a group of men sitting around a table on the porch of an old wooden building, though in bad shape, but obviously still in use.  They said something to me in Bahasa, but I shook my head, telling them I don’t understand.  Then one of them said to me in Vietnamese that he will take me up to the church on the back of the motorcycle.  For a fee.  One of them said something about me.  While I knew that I was safe, something in my gut just told me that it was a situation to get out of.  The lack of other people certainly concerned me.  That I didn’t know the whereabouts of my driver also added to the worry.  I politely declined in Vietnamese, informing them that I had already hired a driver who was just down the street.  Quickly I made my way down the street where I see the cab.  As I approached the door, I saw Wadi reclined fully on his side lightly snoring away.

 

He woke up and we go up to the Pagoda, which is in Galang Site I.  It happened to be Lunar New Year so the place had been decorated with red lanterns and people had been lighting incense praying to the Lady of Peace.  I am not a religious person.  In fact, I am an atheist.  My mother is a believer.  So I knelt in front of the statues, lit the incense and prayed for her, my Catholic stepfather, my sister, my brothers, and lastly for myself.  For a better year.  For a better life.  For the life I already have.  As I thought about my mother, I teared up.  I had been expecting tears since I arrived, but they didn’t come, not until then.  I had spent hours there, wandering from one decaying structure to another.  I kept waiting for something to course through my body, maybe some kind of intensity, maybe something that would overwhelm me.  For months I had been wondering how I would get there, what I would do once I got there, would it mean anything to me.  And then I started dreading that maybe it wouldn’t change me, maybe I would just come, observe it and leave.  But how could being somewhere like that not have an impact?I have waited to write this post because I didn’t know how to put down in words what I felt.  What I still feel.  When I decided to take this trip–alone and without much planning–I thought fear would strike me.  Loneliness would set in and grip me.  Homesickness will catch me off guard and I would spend days, if not a whole week broken down and questioning my decision.  Surprisingly, it was none of these things.  I have not felt lonely.  I have not felt homesick.  What I have felt is, what I have wondered is, have I ever truly been here?  What have I seen?  Will it change me?  It’s the stasis that frightens me.  It’s thinking that this experience will have no effect on me.  I expected ground shaking, earth shattering epiphany.  That’s just not how things happen.  It takes time.  Time to set in, time to parse through, time to understand.  What it is and who I am.

 

My fear isn’t being stuck, lonely, or homesick.  When I got off the ferry, I feared I would not get to the place I had traveled across an ocean for, but that wasn’t anything compared to the fear of stagnating.  I do not want to be the same.  Sometimes you have to go back in order to go forward.  It’s been a month now and I think I am different.  In a way.  Though everything feels the same, I am different.The other night, all night.  Lightning.  Thunder.  Rain.  In the warm tropical storm, I stood in the streets, letting the drops soak through my clothes, every strand of hair.  In Kuching, in Sarawak, in Borneo, I let it all go.  Once I got inside, I felt sick and I threw up everything I had eaten.  I went to bed and in the morning I woke up and felt different.

 

People say travel is transformative.  People say that it will help you discover who you are.  I am not looking to discover who I am.  I am looking for history, for culture–to know from where I come.  It’s not the individual experience I desire, it’s the collective. I want to trace my mother’s footsteps from Thailand to Vietnam to Cambodia.  I have longed to smell the air, see the colors of the sunrises and sunsets, feel the warmth and humidity on my skin.  Have I ever truly been here?  Though it feels like nothing will change, everything is different.  My home is not here or there.  People come up to me and ask me where I am from, sometimes speaking to me in Bahasa Malay.  I am American, I say.  That is not enough.  I am American, but also Vietnamese, but I have never been there.  Better. I have never met my grandparents.  More. My mother is Cambodian but she identifies as Vietnamese.  Wait, doesn’t that also make me Cambodian?  I spent the first 26 years of my life not knowing that.  What does it mean to be Cambodian?  How is that different from Vietnamese?  Am I not American?  Who are my people?

 

On the way back, Wadi picked up a woman who needed a ride into town.  I told him I didn’t mind sharing the cab with her.  Then he turned onto a road that led down into a dock area.  The entrance had armed guards.  The woman in the back said something in Bahasa that seemed to me to be concern and worry.  It panicked me.  Where are we going? I demanded.  We drove past old boats, run-down buildings, litter.  It turned out that he was just buying a pack of cigarettes.  I was never unsafe.  After that, I relaxed a little.  Not everything is in my control.  I just have to let it be.

Different or not, change isn’t the instantaneous thing I expected or sought.  It’s far more subtle.  I am ready now. For the journey.  Or sojourn, whichever it is.  I am ready for whatever comes.

 

The rest of the Galang Refugee Camp photos can be viewed on flickr.

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Patterns and Architecture | Singapore v

 

Oh, Singapore.  What a beautiful city.  I could not put my camera down.  A gorgeous and extremely photogenic city.  So many inviting places to explore.  I want to know what is behind that red door.

 

I was sad to leave, but I felt that I could have stayed indefinitely.  Since it was the start of my trip, I reluctantly bid farewell and headed over to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Lunar New Year | Singapore iv

Happy year of the horse!  I rang in the new year in Singapore, spending it with Aileen and her wonderful mother, Bernadette.  They welcomed me into their home and family gathering giving me a very special experience.  Then I wandered an empty Kuala Lumpur.  Now I am currently in Penang where firecrackers go off randomly.  Last night–my first night–fireworks lit up the sky.  Here’s hoping this year works out better than last.  By the way, I started out last year with forecast of bad luck and misfortunes.  Now I am not a believer in these things but I do find the coincidence mildly amusing (though mostly annoying).

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The City | Singapore iii

 

Gardens by the Bay

I wish I had the time to stop by at night.  The Supertree Grove dazzled me.  Bromeliads and orchids make up the structure.  At night, the trees light up using solar energy.  I’m terrified of heights, and yet somehow I manage to convince myself to walk the sky bridge.  I nearly fainted several times.  I didn’t think I was going to make it!

Marina Bay Sands

What is that thing?  It looks like a boat supported by three pillars.  It made no sense to me.  From the balcony of my accommodations, I stared in awe and wonder.  What a strange place Singapore is!  Turns out it is a casino, hotel complete with an awe inspiring infinity pool, which sadly is only open to guests, and a bevy of high end shops located on the bottom floors.  How Hermes and Chanel stores does one city need?

Markets, Miscellaneous, and et cetera

There is so much to see and do in Singapore.  Well, maybe so much to see and eat.  Everywhere you look there is something to see.  I may have mentioned but I really didn’t think I would like Singapore.  It was merely the starting point of my trip, convenient and quick.  It’s an expensive city, but the food is very affordable, which can help off-set the costs.  It’s also an incredibly beautiful and photogenic city: I could barley put my camera down.  I had to force myself to put it away because I didn’t want to be so concerned with documenting it that I miss out on actually experiencing it.

Currently I am in Kuala Lumpur.  I can’t help but compare the two cities.  At first glance, Kuala Lumpur just doesn’t compare to Singapore, but on a closer look, KL has its charms and this is a city that is rapidly changing.  I blink my eyes and when I open them again, it has already changed.  I have just a couple more posts on Singapore, and then I’ll be able to delve a little more into my thoughts on KL.

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The Botanic Gardens | Singapore ii

Originally I only planned to stay five nights.  I would get bored, I thought.  I ended up staying ten nights.  Even then I do not feel that I have a grasp of this beautiful city.  Going in, my ideas of the city was pretty it’s too sterile, too clean, it doesn’t have much to offer.  How wrong I was. Though expensive, this city is rich with culture, food, art, and yes, shopping.  It’s easy to spend a fortune here but there are enough free things to do and cheap eats to accommodate any budget.  Finding a place to stay that won’t break your wallet will be difficult.

 

There is a frenzy here, or maybe it’s better to say it’s an energy.  The place wants to keep building, growing, adapting and it feels tolerant.  There are so many different cultures that it’s hard to separate them.  The culture is a polyculture.  And I never felt harassed here despite being on my own, despite mindlessly roaming around with all my gear, kind of half lost.  The way I travel, I don’t like to consult maps.  I just get on the MRT, pick a random stop, and walk.  The only things on my to do list were what to eat.

 

I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of Singapore.  Its ease of navigation.  Its orderliness.  Its cleanliness.  Its absolutely beautiful and breath taking scenery.  They call it “our city in a garden.”  I couldn’t think of anything more apt.

 

Because I am traveling on a budget and because Singapore is so expensive, I did my best to limit my spending.  The Botanic Garden is free to enter and you can easily lose several hours wandering around.  The National Orchid Garden costs about $5SG and I highly recommend it.

 

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Walkabout | Singapore i

 

What a crazy place.  Beautiful buildings everywhere.  It’s as if they said, let’s build a shopping mall, and then looked at their buildings and said, hmm, could use more plants, and they stuck plants on the plants.  Three things are plentiful: shopping, food, and plants.  Their national flower is the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid.  They landscape using orchids.  There are gardeners  tending the plants at every turn.

 

I read that you only need 3-4 days to explore Singapore.  Personally I do not feel that is enough.  If all you were concerned with was just seeing the main attractions and getting out, then perhaps that would work for you.  But the food.  There is so much food.  How would you be able to eat all that food in such a short amount of time?  I think, there is culture here, there is flavor, there is life.  I think, I can spend an indefinite amount of time just exploring the hawker food stalls.  I don’t think 3-4 days is enough to get an experience of what the food is like.  There is so much.

 

Honestly I didn’t think I would like this place as I felt it was perhaps too sterile for me.  Turns out, it’s really easy to fall for this Garden City.

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Welcome to Singapore

From San Francisco I flew to Vancouver and there I caught an overnight flight to Manilla.  I don’t remember a night so long–this one lasted near 18 hours.  Now I am sitting on a deck overlooking a river in Singapore.  I didn’t think I would like here it so much, but it turns out, this place is really quite beautiful.  So strange, yet everywhere you look, something green grows.

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My Nephews | Christmas 2013

One day they are so cute–big eyes and innocence all over their faces, then they turn four and it’s “No, I don’t want to.”  I’m going to miss them while I’m gone.

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The Best Meal I Ate in Costa Rica

I dream about food.  I think that there is nothing I get excited about more than food.  Maybe that’s why I carry around a few extra pounds, but I can’t help myself.  While the food at the Four Seasons was pretty good, it had obviously been adjusted to American tastes.  After the end of an excursion, we were being taken to a restaurant to eat, and I asked our driver if the place was authentic.  (The previous excursion took us to a place that had pasta, which disappointed me.)  Still, it was a nice restaurant, in an open air dining room nestled in a grove of trees.  BBQ meats, black beans, plantains, and a great tasting beer.  Our of the norm for me–I never drink.

 

In nine days, I will be leaving for Southeast Asia.  Nervous and anxious doesn’t really describe what I’m feeling.  I don’t think that it’s really going to hit me until I touch down in Singapore.  It is not even that I am traveling alone for months, but that I am leaving everything in my life behind.  Granted I know things will be the same when I get back, but I wonder, will I?  Am I expecting too much?

 

I have been grappling with how to form into words my reason for going.  Previously I cited the car accident, the unrelated surgery, the cyst in my brain, but there are far deeper, more substantive reasons for going.  I am not ready to share those.  Yet.  At least not until I get the rest of the photos up.  I still have Hawaii and Bora Bora to share before I can touch on the other subject.

 

I will say that I have been longing for a history and a culture I can recognize as my own.  I fear that I will have none.  In that regard, I must make my own.  All my life I have felt like I belonged nowhere, but maybe that’s just because I was looking for a singular group when in actuality I belonged in many places.  At times I looked at it as a disadvantage, but in my gut, in my mind, in the roundness and excess flesh that hang off my bones, I know I have been lucky.  I know I am fortunate. And I won’t ever forget that.

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