Travel Diary Entry 2: Malaysia
I’ve always dreamed of celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia, so being on exchange there worked out perfectly. After contemplating between a few countries, Malaysia was the winner and I was stoked to be able to visit two cities, Penang and Kuala Lumpur (the capital) with my travel pal and close friend, Katie. We heard that CNY celebrations were an especially amazing experience. I even packed my traditional Chinese New Year blouse! (Which I’ve actually owned since the 3rd grade and it still fits me; I guess being a short girl has its perks.)
But the highlight of the weekend was not, in the end, Chinese New Year. In fact, this weekend turned out nothing the way we planned. At all. (I may or may not have ended up in the hospital…) Some might see it as a disappointment, and believe me, at first I felt that way. But then I gave myself a little shake of reality, and looking back on it, I laugh about it and realize that this trip was the biggest learning lesson in disguise. Read on to hear more about the roller coaster of my Chinese New Year weekend in Malaysia!
Day 1: Welcome to Penang
The nice thing about Malaysia is that it’s so close to Singapore, you can take a bus. So that’s exactly what we did! 14 hours later, we arrived in Penang and headed to the hostel that we had booked, Ryokan Muntri. It was a cute and cozy space with Japanese inspired interior and design. The rooms even had this adorably large mirror with lightbulbs. It made me feel partly like a movie star and was also the perfect outfit-checking mirror. After a quick change, we headed out to explore the city!
First stop (as always): food! Penang is a city well-known in all of Asia for it’s amazing food so, I was prepared to feast like a Queen that weekend. But as we walked around Penang, we noticed a lot of restaurants were closed. And not just restaurants, but a lot of things: convenience stores, clothing shops, markets. After asking around, we soon learned that because Penang is not as busy as the country’s capital, the city pretty much shuts down for the first week of Chinese New Year. We asked our hostel staff later on, and they explained that most of the celebrations happened the week after (when we’d be back in Singapore…) At the time, hearing the news was a bit of a downer, but not everything was closed. Penang was still a really cute city so it was just a matter of making the most of it! We came across a recommended Indian Restaurant and things went uphill from there. We got some cashew briyani, a chickpea curry and mango lassis.. mmmm MMMM was my tummy happy!
Penang is also known for being the artsy, “hipster” centre of Malaysia, so one of the big things to see is the street art. Tons of artists have collaborated with the city to design beautiful street art, installations and murals. One of my favourite ones was one called “Boy on a bike”
For dinner, we wanted to try and find some local Penang. We ended up at a place called “Line Clear” which was extremely hidden but recommended in our travel guide as a delicious local eat. The place was bustling with locals, and it was pretty evident Katie and I were the only foreigners there. There wasn’t even a menu! Everyone just lined up for what looked like a serve-style buffet. Katie and I had no idea what we were going to eat, and language was sort of a barrier too. So we did out best to explain what we wanted, and ended up with a plate with rice, some jumbo shrimp and squid, and a few curries that they insisted we try.
We sat down to eat and it was delicious! Unlike anything I’ve really eaten before, but one thing to note, it was S-P-I-C-Y! My spice tolerance is also pretty low, but this was spicy to a whole new level. As in, I couldn’t really feel my tongue afterwards and my ears were burning. The cane-sugar juice helped to ease it just a litttttttle bit. (In all honesty, I wanted to cry it was so spicy but so delicious… serious dilemma!)
While we were eating, a Malaysian family came up to us to chat and find out how we were doing. The one thing I found with the locals is that they were so welcoming and friendly! Strangers would strike up conversations whenever and always made sure you were doing okay. It was a small gesture that really warmed the experience of being there.
Finally it was night time, and officially Chinese New Year! Our plan was to head to the Penang Hill (a huge mountain that lets you overlook the entirety of the city), and afterwards, to the Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the largest temples in SE Asia. On our way to the Penang Hill, my stomach really started to hurt, but I didn’t think too much of it as we had eaten a lot of food throughout the day. We arrived at the bottom of the hill and took a tram up. The tram was much steeper than I expected (think of the downward hill of Wonderland’s Behemoth, but going upwards), so essentially, it felt like a slow moving roller coaster. When we got to the top, the view was incredible! I’ve seen New York City from the Empire State Building and that was unbelievable (I’m a sucker for city skyline views). But there was something different about Penang; the way you could see the temples lit up across the city, every light and building in the city shining bright in celebration of Chinese New Year. And as if the view wasn’t spectacular enough, there were even fireworks!! I swear I saw the biggest firework show of my entire life. Overtop of the city it looked like it took over a quarter of it, it was insane!!
The fireworks really added to the Chinese New Year feeling. But the only problem is that my stomach was still hurting. In fact, it actually started to get worse and I could hardly move without feeling pain.
We decided to head back to the bottom of the hill, and I started to drink a lot of water in hopes of it easing the pain. By the time we got to the bottom, the pain was so unbearable that I couldn’t walk. I had never experienced this kind of pain before and I can genuinely say it was the worst pain of my whole life. Unfortunately, there were no cabs in sight and I couldn’t walk. So Katie went to go search for a cab. In short, I was bawling my eyes out while sitting on a sidewalk in Malaysia with no idea of what was happening.
I eventually ended up at a nearby emergency clinic. The doctor evaluated me, had no idea what it was, and they put me in a clinic bed and gave me 3 pills to drink alongside a huge glass of what looked like white PVA glue (it was actually liquid medicine!). One thing about me though, is that I am extremely, EXTREMELY afraid of swallowing pills. I don’t know what it is, but I’m still 20 years old and take kids advil because I simply can’t bring myself to do it. Well, good-bye to that girl, because that pain was so unbearable, I knew I would do anything that could relieve it, so I swallowed those pills like a champ. One hour later, no change, and so I was sent off to the hospital on another adventure.
After being admitted into the hospital, they put me in a hospital bed and told me that they would monitor the pain for a little while and then determine what to do. I was so scared, and worried and I don’t think I’ve appreciated all the things in my life as much as I did in that moment. I was in a foreign country, with no idea of what was happening to me, no way to contact anyone back home (plus I wouldn’t want to worry them), and it really made me think and appreciate how lucky I am for all the wonderful people and opportunities that I have. 5 minutes into this wondering and suddenly… BOOM! (I didn’t explode, don’t worry.)
The pain was gone!! I was so confused, and so were the doctors. No one had a clear idea of what caused this and how it disappeared so fast. I was even shocked to be so comfortable after the past 3 hours of torture. As a precaution, they took a blood test (my first one in my whole life… in Malaysia, YAY), which felt like it took an eternity, told me everything was normal and finally, they discharged me.
It makes no sense, right?! What we decided as the ultimate conclusion was that my body reacted to the seafood and spicy-ness from dinner. I sometimes feel uneasy when I overeat seafood, and I guess this was a combination of that plus a reaction from the spice? And then the medicine from the clinic must have eventually kicked in to help relieve the pain (apparently, the medicine they gave me helps pain called gastritis). All I know is that I never felt and never want to feel that pain again in my life.
Oh and the best part was that our taxi driver stopped at McDonald’s on the way back to the hostel from the hospital. So we got some celebratory ice cream and even bought him one too. McDonald’s soft-serve never fails to impress me. (Also, it was only 60 cents in Malaysia!!)
The next day, we grabbed some food and hopped on a bus that would take us to the main city, Kuala Lumpur.
PART 2: KUALA LUMPUR
Later that night, we arrived at our hostel in KL and decided to go straight out and explore the town. We stumbled upon one of the most amazing streets EVER. And it’s name was “Jalan Hanoman” (Jalan means “street” or “road” in Malay).
Jalan Hanoman was food paradise! It was a street lined with stalls and restaurants with all types of cuisines. The best part: it was open until 5 a.m. and all the food was really cheap! Katie and I spent a good 4 hours exploring the street, eating, and just having good conversation. Sometimes in the bustle of doing all sorts of activities while travelling, I forgot how nice it was to just relax and have inspiring life chats with one of my closest friends. Hands down, I can say I ate the most food of my life that night (and the night after when we returned back to the street to eat yet again…), and it was soooo good!!!! The list included turkish ice-cream, dim sum pau buns, Char Kway Teow (Malaysia Noodle dish), Cendol (a really interesting looking dessert, made with shaved ice, flavoured syrups, coconut sugar, corn, red beans, jellies and other surprises), coconut water, mango sticky rice, and a second serving of ice cream. Oh, and this was all post-dinner snacks… (Have I mentioned I LOVE good food?).
We spent the next day exploring KL and visited central market, a humongous indoor market place. There were tons of cute shops and cafes, where we got to try some delicious “White Coffee”, a Malaysian specialty (it’s not actually white in colour though).
But the best part was the fish pedicures!! Yup, you’re reading that right. It’s been on the bucketlist to get one of these done. Pretty much, it’s a large pool filled with fish that you soak your feet in. The fish actually eat off the dead skin from your feet and it leaves them feeling brand new. It sounds so gross, I know. I was also a bit scared because typically, the fish are about the size of tadpoles. But these ones were HUGE! I put my feet in and couldn’t stop laughing. It was so tickle-ish and I felt so weird. But as they say, beauty is pain, so I kept it in for the full 15 minutes. But let me tell you, my feet came out feeling SO FRESH. Definitely the best pedicure I’ve ever gotten AND it was only $5!!!!
With our feet feeling refreshed we decided to adventure on Malaysia’s subway system to get to the Batu Caves, a famous temple complex in KL. With over 5 lines, the subway takes you almost everywhere in the city and it’s super easy to figure out once you get a map! Also, most of the fares in all of Asia are based on distance, so it works out as an extremely economical option, PLUS you get to see the city like a local! (Come on TTC, time to STEP IT UP.)
We got to the Batu caves and were greeted with an immense amount of beauty and culture. They’re not kidding when they say caves. The first one we went into was extremely beautiful with tons of religious structures and sculptures.
For one of the caves, you had to climb up a huge set of stairs. It was a true work-out (except no running was allowed), and while climbing up the stairs we had some friends accompany us… Monkeys!! They were super cute, but we soon realized that they also had other intentions, and ended up stealing people’s food and even belongings. So we decided to stay clear.
BACK TO SINGAPORE (Almost)
The next morning we headed for our bus back to Singapore, which was scheduled to leave at noon. We got to the bus platform and were ready to get a good long nap after a really long weekend. By 4:00 p.m, no bus had shown up and my legs were crazy tired from standing that long. It turns out that the bus platform had been changed and no one came to inform us (along with the 20 other people on the platform with us waiting too). After talking to management, we ended up getting tickets for a 5:00 p.m. bus and by 1:00 a.m., we were finally back on our Singaporean University campus, safe and sound.
LOOK BACK (You won’t regret it!)
All in all, what a trip. I can remember returning from the weekend and feeling slightly upset that my Chinese New Year didn’t go as amazing as I wanted it to. Penang was almost a ghost town, I ended up in the hospital, our bus never showed up… it felt like a disappointment. But then I think back to the “Boy on a Bike” mural. The boy on the bike is looking back. They always tell you not to look back on things, and looking back on Malaysia, nothing went as planned, AT ALL. But now, I laugh at everything that happened and they really are great stories to tell. I realize that I learned so much from this trip: more about life and experiences than I’ve ever known. It’s also been a good reminder that I should be staying humble, grateful and motivated for all my opportunities that I’ve been able to have. So I’m glad that I looked back, and I’m glad that things weren’t perfect. Thank you, Malaysia, through the thick and thin! Because sometimes, you need to ride in the rough and experience the mistakes and mishaps to get a good reality check.
Stay tuned for more adventure diaries!