In any list, something must come last: it's just the nature of the way things work. As my time in Malaysia winds down, I think of the countries I've spent meaningful time in on this One Way Ticket and conclude that Malaysia is my least favorite.
And since I'm an introspective sort I've sought to sort out why. Is it due to the crappy rooms? No, I've had those everywhere--I'm cheap, you know. Is it due to my getting sick from something I ate? Nope, had that in Vietnam and Thailand. And Malaysia has lovely scenery and architecture--it's not a bad place, really. In fact, of all the Asia I've seen it's the most like home. America.
And that's part of the problem. People here love their cars. They rush around, always in a hurry. They're not likely to smile at a rando--if they do chat it will be polite, but there will be boundaries. Walls.
It's not like that in Thailand or Cambodia, where smiles lead to conversations lead to invitations to dinner.
Malaysia is also (from what I've seen) a fully developed country. Thus, in addition to being the most expensive SE Asian country I've stayed in, it lacks the "quirks" of Cambodia or the undiscovered wild of Laos. Indeed it's the differences from back home--the unexpected and exotic--that make travel exhilarating. It's the different people with unusual ways that totally work that draw me in and create memories.
I just don't connect with Malaysia that way. Maybe I'm too jaded now, I don't know.
So enough of the negativity. Here are four favorite pics from the four cities I've visited and a little about each:
My first morning in KL I jumped into the train system for the Batu Caves, a highly-rated Hindu Temple (because these are the things that should be judged, of course). But getting there wasn't so straightforward, and I wandered outside a KTM and/or LRT station getting frustrated as I am wont to do.
But after a breakfast that made me less hangry, I walked on and found the Colonial Walk and River of Life. I spent the next couple of hours admiring KL's old government buildings, mosques, and important historical sites and remembered that this is an essential element of my travels--getting lost and seeing what I can see.
Chinese New Year began halfway through my stay in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fireworks every night, tourists everywhere. The second night of CNY I visited Jonker Street, where all those tourists converged to shuffle slow, chest to back.
Also there, of course, were vendors--food and tours. But while Bangkok and other cities crowd with motorized tuktuks, Melaka deploys bicycle rickshaws decked out in Hello Kitty, Minions, Doraemon, and other "Oooh Oooh! Mommy Mommy can we?!" characters. They also play ice cream cart-annoying soundtracks. And on this night, the rickshaws looped and snaked and corkscrewed in paths beyond my ability to stay out of (maybe if I'd put my cameraphone down). This image captures that chaos.
While Chinese New Year was ongoing during my three nights in this little highland town the vibe was decidedly more sedate. Everything just seems chill in Ipoh--despite being the birthplace of white coffee, a perky beverage enjoyed throughout the country.
Ipoh also boasts strong street art. I snapped a shot of this mural when the woman standing in front noticed. Then she turned to see what the fuss was about. I get it, too--locals don't always appreciate what their town offers.
Malaysia, while a predominantly Muslim country, has been known for pluralism and tolerance--at least until recently (another similarity to the U.S.). In one day in George Town, Penang, I visited a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish cemetery, an Anglican church, and a Catholic museum--all while a holiday heavily influenced by Buddhism went on around me. Rightly proud of this diversity, they refer to one stretch of worship sites as the Street of Harmony.
And so, as I write this with one final day in Penang, my time in Malaysia is almost done: not the best, but largely not bad. As I move on, hopefully it will remain my least favorite country as well.
And where am I off to next? Hmm. Cliffhanger.
Fun features I didn't mention in the video:
- No a/c
- I had to borrow a fan from the front desk, and it is LOUD
- Cover band in the hotel bar playing "Higher" by Creed (yes I did mention that but it so bore repeating)
And I still haven't gotten to sleep--who knows what fun awaits me at 2 a.m.? [EDIT: I got my answer--Germans slamming doors!]
Death. A lot has been said on the topic and I don't know that I have anything new to add but I hope you'll indulge me nonetheless.
It's something I've thought about since... well, since ever, at least for a long time. I remember as I little kid taking a paper and pencil to graveyards and sketching images of the headstones, fascinating with the history. I also remember fixating on death--I would awfulize, worry that my father would die driving to visit me on the weekends, worry that when my mother was a few minutes late coming home she was in a ditch somewhere. I tried to hasten my own, from clueless suicide attempts early on (maybe you can od on rescue inhaler but I didn't find a way) to a much more effective attempt at 18 that won me a stay in the ICU.
Death was the main topic of my earliest short stories, written when I should've been paying attention in middle school music class. Maybe that's a common thread for writers--we have to think about a story as beginning middle and end, and what clearer end is there than death?
Because the truth is, we all die.
That song has been a motivator in the One Way Ticket.
Look alive. See these bones.
What you are now, we were once.
Just like we are, you'll be dust.
And just like we are, permanent.
So what do I want to do before then? What do I want to leave behind besides dust and stone?
These were my thoughts as I walked past gravesites here in Malaysia. Ancient ones like the Dutch Graveyard in Melaka where so many were buried younger than I am now, or the newer and comparatively anonymous ones like in Ipoh.
And they are two separate thoughts. My travels, my experiences, are largely selfish. They bring me joy, insight, whatever--all good things, no apologies for that. And I will carry memories of them to my deathbed but not beyond.
Will I make anything that stays after me, though? Most people get a form of immortality through their children**--passing on chromosomes and collected wisdom from forefathers and mothers. And maybe I'll do that some day. I had plans once, but...
But that's one hope for the writing. Something that those who might never know me can read and gain something from. That someone who is feeling pain or facing challenge can, for a few hours, get lost in the stories I've spun and can smile or learn or just know they aren't alone in all this. And maybe even 50 years after I'm gone, someone might pick up one of my titles and appreciate it, that my words could stand the test of time.
We all die. But the truth is, most of us want to game it a little bit.
**Which brings to my mind the horror of last week in Parkland, Florida. There are parents my age who must bury their children for no good fucking reason. The bitter cruelty of that exceeds any words I could possibly write.
There's a tension between these three claims. As a writer, especially when banging out longer forms narratives, I thrive on routine and a borderline boring environment. I don't need much--a comfortable workspace, relative quiet, easy access to food delivery when possible.
These are hit and mostly miss when traveling. Maybe because I'm on an unemployed aspiring writer's budget, but my hotel rooms tend to be "cozy", food is far more interesting in stalls and hidden holes in their walls, and, on nights like tonight, the sounds of tuners and rice rockets buzz up alley funnels and right into my ears.
Plus the whole point of traveling is to get out of my hotel room and see the world--otherwise I could've stayed in that corporate life, where I had status and spent time in the best windowless conference rooms.
A fellow consultant once said to me "Know what's better than having status? Not having status."
Each day I see it's true, whether getting rained on in Laos, getting tested in Cambodia, or getting no sleep tonight in Kuala Lumpur. No matter how bad it has been, it's better than having my soul slowly sucked away.
So yes, I am happy. Loving life (which, historically, is also not a common claim writers make). But that doesn't resolve the tension between writing and traveling, the push vs. pull of often diametrically opposed desires. With the novel nearing queryable status, it now demands my attention.
But so does Malaysia.
I'm still not sure how to harmonize these competing demands. Maybe I could think of a solution if I could get some sleep...