Three weeks in Malaysia

Oct 19, 2009 • alan


I had been stockpiling vacation days for the last year, partly at the request of my company’s management, since we were working on a very big project for a Tier 1 phone carrier. But as that project neared completion, I started making plans for time off. As it turns out, the only time that the girls would be out of school for any length of time was during their October “track out”, a three week break between quarters (their year-round schedule is basically nine weeks on, three weeks off, four times a year). So we decided to take the entire three weeks and visit our family in Malaysia.

Most folks don’t get to take a three week vacation all at once, and so what follows is an account of what we did, just to give an idea of what it was like. As you’ll see, there were a few bursts of activity, but for the most part, we did a lot of “just hanging around”.

All in all, we had a good time. But it seemed like a strange vacation, because we did not really “do much”.

GETTING THERE

We started off the trip at 4am (ugh). It was very dark, and before we had even left our own doorstep, Foong fell on the steps and hurt her ankle. The journey of 10,000+ miles almost began with a side trip to the emergency room. But she was OK. Her ankle swelled a little, but it was OK in a couple of days.

The plane trips were long, but we kept ourselves entertained. We flew American from Raleigh to New York and then Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. That long leg from JFK to HKG was 15 hours, and I managed to watch five movies during the flight (Get Smart, The Bucket List, Angels and Demons, Night at the Museum 2, Star Trek XI).

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at dusk. Foong’s sister drove us home (a little less than an hour), and we greeted everyone and then tried to wind down for bed.

I noticed that my iPhone did not work as a phone. It just said “No Access”.

Day 1 – Tuesday 9/29

Our first official meal in Malaysia was at the food court in my in-laws’ neighborhood. It’s a large open-air eating area with a dozen or more little stands along the edge, each selling something different: noodles, soup, drinks, fruit, stuffed buns. This layout is very common in Malaysia, whether it is in an open-air neighborhood setting, or inside of a shopping mall.

We stayed close to home that first day, exploring the shops in the neighborhood, picking up some essentials like milk, diet soft drinks (no luck), not-so-sugary cereal (no luck). The local stores looked a little more bare than the last time I saw them (in 2004).

I tinkered with their internet connection, an ADSL modem and a wireless router. It was set up in a most unusual way, the DSL modem acting as a bridge, the router acting as a switch, and the client PC doing the PPPoE authentication. Apparently, the local phone company recommended this set-up, and my brother-in-law was led to believe that it was “secure”. I proved that theory wrong by getting on the web using my iphone, and then later by sniffing his network traffic, and showing him how his virus-infected laptop was sending out spam while we watched it.

Now might be a good time to mention that I was planning on attending a hacker’s conference in Kuala Lumpur in a few days.

Foong got a hair cut. Short hair feels good in the hot, humid weather.

Day 2 – Wednesday 9/30

Still adjusting to the time zones, I woke up at 4am. I found that the girls were also up. So we walk around the neighborhood, where we saw old ladies doing Tai Chi in an open lot.

I decided to reconfigure their ADSL modem and router. I set the router up to do the PPPoE, because no one should ever have to set that up on their PC (or iPhone). Then I set a wireless password. And then THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP… I wrote down how it was all set up, and I taped that paper to the router. Most people forget that step.

We had breakfast at a local cafe, typical of Malaysia, a shop with an open front, tile floors, plastic lawn-style tables and chairs, and a kitchen in the back. Then we went shopping at the local fresh market, a large two-story building with an open area where they sell fresh meats and fish (“fresh” means you can pick out a live chicken). There is also an area of small shops selling trinkets, handbags, watches, accessories, flowers, and toys. And finally, there is a food court, which is just like the one in our neighborhood. Same plastic lawn chairs, same assortment of food.

For lack of anything specific to do, we went shopping at Jaya Jusco, a shopping mall in “Seremban 2”, the new side of their town. This mall has a Starbucks… the first place outside of our house where I found an open wifi connection. At the large supermarket in that mall, we finally found some Diet Pepsi.

I was surprised to see a store devoted to selling “Instant-Dict” electronic dictionaries. I have a 1992 model Instant-Dict Chinese-English dictionary which I do not ever use, but I happen to keep my iPhone in the leather sleeve that it came in. It still has the logo on it. I showed it to the girl who was working in the shop — she was just slightly older than that leather sleeve — but she was underwhelmed. Malaysians are not known for small talk.

We walked to a hair salon near our house so the girls could get short hair cuts. US$5 each! (I already started the trip off with short hair, so now we were all prepared for the weather).

Day 3 – Thursday 10/1

Foong’s brother lives in the small town of Mentakab, a couple hours drive away, in the state of Pahang. There’s not much in Mentakab — it’s in the middle of nowhere. We decided to visit his family, even though he was currently on a business trip in China. Foong’s dad (the girls call him “Gong Gong”) drove. He drives fast. The plan was to stay one night.

On the way to Mentakab, we were pulled over in a police speed trap. In Malaysia, the police are not interested in giving you a speeding ticket… they’re looking for small bribes. It’s really sad. However, it seems that having a white boy in your back seat with a big camera hanging around his neck is a “get out of jail free” card.

When we got to Mentakab, we took a tour of my brother-in-law’s furniture factory.

Day 4 – Friday 10/2

I know I said that Mentakab was in the middle of nowhere, but if you drive another half hour further out into the middle of nowhere, you will find the Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre and a petting zoo called “Deer Land”. What fun! So we piled the kids into the car and drove to the elephant preserve, only to find that it was not open in the morning. So we went to Deer Land, only to find that it is closed on Fridays. So we drove back to Mentakab, slightly bummed. On the way home, a mother monkey with a baby hanging on around her neck darted across the road, right in front of our car! That brief encounter was the only wildlife we’d see that day.

We went to downtown Mentakab: lunch at McDonald’s and then shopping at a chain store called — get this — “The Store”. It’s like K-mart.

Although we were supposed to go home on Friday, my sister-in-law invited us to stick around for a Moon Cake Festival party that she was hosting for her Lion’s Club chapter. It was a lively party, with traditional candle lanterns, a DJ, games, a lots of food. It was a little surreal to be surrounded by a hundred slightly drunk Chinese-speaking party-goers.

Day 5 – Saturday 10/3

We got up the next morning and drove back to Seremban.

AT&T sent us an email, saying that our phones did not work in Malaysia because they did not activate international roaming on our accounts, because we were “new” customers (we only had 80-some days of service — it takes 90 days to be considered “established”). They wanted us to FAX a copy of our drivers license and a recent utility bill to them so they could establish our long term creditworthiness. Let me get this straight — I am in MALAYSIA, and my phone does not work, and you want me to *fax* you a copy of my *gas bill*??? Against all odds, I happened to have my most recent gas bill in my pocket (thanks to online banking, PDF bills, and my encrypted 4 GB thumb drive). Dang, I felt like MacGyver! So we sent off the fax and waited.

Meanwhile, Foong’s sister and her son arrived from Shanghai.

Foong spent the rest of the night catching up with her sister, while the kids and I burned stuff in the yard. It started off innocently, lighting Mooncake Festival lanterns, but it does not take long to turn pretty lanterns into pyromania. Eventually, we put out the yard fires and played badminton instead.

Day 6 – Sunday 10/4

We met two of Foong’s high school classmates at McDonald’s for a McReunion breakfast. While we were out, we bought a prepaid SIM card to use for local calls (but not on the SIM-locked iPhone – we used a cheap hand-me-down GSM phone instead).

That afternoon, we crammed into the car and drove to Singapore, a three-hour trip. I spent my time reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Once we got to Singapore, we split up. Foong’s sister stayed in her old neighborhood, Bukit Batok. We stayed with some Malaysian friends who used to live in Apex NC, but who now live in Bedok, a very nice neighborhood in Singapore. We stay up until 1am, catching up with our hosts. They miss Bojangles.

Day 7 – Monday 10/5

The plan was to spend Monday at Sentosa, Singapore’s island resort.

It took half the day to get there, because of ticketing delays, the cable car being renovated, and being suckered into a complimentary lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant. That free lunch cost us $30 — it turns out that the drinks were not free. Suckers.

While we waited for transportation, Audrey and I found a geocache hidden on a historic train car.  With a “smiley” on the map, we could now say that we had really been to Singapore.

At Sentosa, we went to the aquarium (+), a “simulator” ride (–), a dolphin show (–), a chair lift (S$21!), and an observation tower (S$28!). Sure, it was activity-filled, but a wasted day that could have spent exploring the city.

We met some old friends and a distant relative at Tiong Bahru for dinner — for me, it was just Chinese food in a mall.

Day 8 – Tuesday 10/6

Foong slept until 11:30. We were supposed to meet her sister at the “HDB flats” (government-owned high-rise apartments) for lunch. We panicked for being late, quickly packed up and left by 1pm. We had a late lunch in a typical HDB flat food court, very similar to all of the other food courts, with the same plastic lawn furnture.

Since we had practically blown our entire time in Singapore at Sentosa, we drove by our old house at Watten View so the kids could see it. And then we went by Thomson Medical Centre, where Audrey was born. Her delivery doctor was still there, but she was busy, so we could not say “Hi”.

We made the three-hour drive back to Seremban. The only eventful part of the trip was seeing wild monkeys at the highway rest area.

Day 9 – Wednesday 10/7

I had to wake up early to catch a commuter train into Kuala Lumpur for the “Hack In The Box” security conference.

The conference lasted two days, and I will cover it in a different post. It was basically a day in a super-refrigerated hotel. The speakers were very entertaining. But at the same time, it was lonely.

After the conference, I took the commuter train back to Seremban, and grabbed some supper at Kenny Rogers Restaurant, which is across the Frogger-like road from the train station.

Day 10 – Thursday 10/8

On the second day of Hack In The Box, I was a seasoned pro, as far as public transport goes. So rather than taking the train back to Seremban at the end of the day, we tried a more tricky maneuver. Momma and the kids spent the day at Sunway Lagoon, a mall with a water park. I took a train and a taxi to meet them at the mall, just in time to have dinner with some old high school friends.

We spent the night with one of Foong’s HS buddies in Subang Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Day 11 – Friday 10/9

We woke up and had a dim sum breakfast with more HS friends. Then we went shopping in the KL Mall “Utama”. The two memorable things about Utama were: the huge ball pit playground, and the fact that the Burger King guys were wearing silly cowboy hats. Believe me, any Malaysian wearing a cowboy hat is going to look a little out of place.

We took a train back to Seremban.

That night, miracle of miracles, I watched the folks at NASA crash the LCROSS spacecraft into the surface of the moon (in an attempt to see if there was water in the impact and debris plume). What makes this so extraordinary is the fact that I watched it on NASA TV… over the internet… from Malaysia.

Day 12 – Saturday 10/10

We spent Saturday in Seremban. We went shopping at Giant, which is Malaysia’s answer to Target. Foong bought a lot of food to bring back to the US.

Day 13 – Sunday 10/11

On Sunday, we drove to KL to see our nephew Hong Bing at his boarding school. We were curious to see what it was like to live at a boarding school. I think he was happy to escape for an afternoon.

We took him to KLCC (the mall at the base of the Petronas Towers), where we ate at Pizza Hut. We could not tour the Petronas Towers that day… you have to make reservations in advance. So we went to the very large (and hot) park behind the building and found a geocache. [I remember taking my parents to the same park in 2001, and my most vivid memory from that trip is also about how hot it was.]

We returned Hong Bing to his school, and then went to the KL Tower (a space needle observation tower). We got our money’s worth at the KL Tower — Audrey could not make up her mind about which souvenir to buy, and so we waited, and waited. She ended up getting a necklace with a small pendant with her name written on a grain of rice.

At the bottom of the KL Tower, they had a lot of add-on attractions: pony rides, a small indoor animal exhibit, and a F1 simulator (well, a video game where you sit in a low seat that looks like a race car).

Day 14 – Monday 10/12

On Monday, we had to pick up Foong’s brother at the airport and take him back to his home town (which you may remember, is in the middle of nowhere). So we decided to kill some time until his plane arrived by driving through “Putrajaya” and “Cyberjaya”.

Putrajaya is Malaysia’s answer to the Washington DC Mall… it was built way outside of Kuala Lumpur to house the government offices, and each building is competing to look more grand than the rest, while retaining some hint of Muslim architecture.  The whole place had a Disneyland-like artificiality to it.

Cyberjaya is Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley… or really, it’s more like Research Triangle Park in NC. It’s a concentrated area of high-tech offices, with nearby apartments and some shopping. Once again, a bit contrived, but it looked like a nice office park.

We picked up Chee Kin at “LCCT”, the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal, which is much more… basic… than the main international terminal KLIA. We drove to Mentakab and spent the evening at Chee Kin’s house.

Day 15 – Tuesday 10/13

Since we had missed the elephants and other animals two weeks ago, we gave it another try.

The Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre did not disappoint. We petted the elephants, watched them bathe in the river, we helped feed them, and then we took a quick bareback ride! Just down the road was “Deer Land”, which was a fully-immersive petting zoo, with deer, ferrets, snakes, hedgehogs, birds, and a large bear!

We drove back to Seremban, and went shopping at Jaya Jusco in Seremban 2. I bought some glasses. As the shopping center was closing, due to some faulty pay-to-park equipment (and some bad advice from the attendants), we got stuck in the parking lot! So we snuck out the back exit.

Day 16 – Wednesday 10/14

Wednesday was a do-nothing day. We spent most of it packing to go home.

Day 17 – Thursday 10/15

It was time to leave Malaysia, and Foong’s family saw us off with a hearty dim sum breakfast. We had a little bit of time to kill, so Audrey and I walked through the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a newly-built Buddhist temple.

The rest of the day was spent in transit: driving to KLIA, flying to Hong Kong, taxi to Po Lam. On the plane, Sydney lost a tooth! That earned her 10 HKD from the Tooth Fairy.

We were excited to see Foong’s sister, and the girls were happy to see their cousin, Emily.  We stayed in their three-bedroom, 700 sq ft apartment.

Day 18 – Friday 10/16

We spent Friday exploring downtown Hong Kong. There is so much to see. We went to the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, a half-mile of escalators that take you up the steep slopes of that area of the city. We took a ferry to Kowloon, and explored the tiny shops. The girls found one shop that had nothing but gumball-style vending machines! We wrapped it up at Temple street, which is a tacky tourist market. I was enjoying the show, but reality set in… we needed to take the long bus ride back to Po Lam, and then try to get some sleep before our early flight back home in the morning.

Day 19 – Saturday 10/17

Our long trip began very early in the morning. Just like on the way over, I watched five movies on the plane (Hancock, Eagle Eye, The Soloist, State of Play, Ice Age 2: Dawn of Dinosaurs).

Our transfer in NYC was uneventful, and from there, it was a short hop back home.

We had Sunday to recover. And then it was back to school and work.

And that is how I wasted three weeks in Malaysia.