It was mid-April when Michael and I were sitting at the bottom of South East Asia in a Singapore coffee shop pouring over maps. It was time to move upwards along our winding route through Malaysia and several other countries with Japan as the goal in early June. We were in for some serious Senior Nomad travel. More countries in less time that we’d ever tried before - and all of them unfamiliar.
We felt good about our time in Singapore, but we also had some much appreciated hand-holding from Airbnb staff. Until we reached our next planned office visit in Beijing we’d be on our own. Are we getting too old for this? Will we manage all of the different languages, currencies, food, and just getting around? We’d soon find out.
Malaysia hadn’t been on our radar as a country to visit. We would have probably just hopped from Singapore to Bangkok if our oldest son and his family hadn't recommended it. And it also seemed more interesting to make our way through this cultural melting pot by bus and by train than flying directly to Thailand. Plus, I’d just finished a book that I absolutely loved, called “The Gift of Rain” by Tan Twan Ang that takes place in Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown during WWII.
First stop, Malacca, also spelled Malaka - a port city that has been influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch cultures and it shows in the architecture and the food.
We took a five hour, $15 bus ride from Singapore that dropped us across the road from our Airbnb, which happened to be in a resort complex. So far, so good. The first challenge, however, was to cross the road - which was more like a six-lane highway without a crossing. Remember the video game Frogger? That was us.
Our place wasn’t anything special, but we were only there for two nights, so we unpacked and began to explore. It was easier to sprint across the busy road without luggage. Tourism is the only game in town here, so we were juicy targets for the souvenir sellers, tour guides, and rickshaw drivers. But everyone was very nice at the same time, and happy to welcome Americans.
My favorite part of our Malaccan visit was the night markets where hundreds of food stalls and vendors materialized on Jonker Street, the main road through town, and spilled down the side streets. It was fun to watch food cooked before your eyes and choose from those that looked familiar, like satay skewers, light-as-air prawn pancakes, dumplings, and grilled sausage. And a few that didn't. My drink of choice was made from a kids soccer ball size watermelon with a 2-inch hole drilled in the top that just fit a beater from a small hand mixer that whizzed the flesh into icy slush.
A bag of powdered-sugary beignets and a giant, multi-colored cotton candy flower spun before my very eyes topped off our meal. Once your hunger was sated, you could move on to stalls selling anything you need - or more likely didn’t know you needed. And, if you were much, much younger, you could duck into music-thumping Karaoke bars along the way.
But the best show in town was watching the dozens of blinged-out Trishaws (bicycle-powered rickshaws) as they leisurely rolled through town with happy passengers singing along to 80's and 90's pop songs. Each one was a blaze of LED lights and featured characters from Frozen, Nemo, Hello Kitty (very popular), Spiderman, and Sponge Bob. The Trademark Police would have a field day here.
Daytime was a bit quieter so we rested up and got ready for Kuala Lumpur - our first big city since leaving the nest in Singapore. We arrived in KL as its called by bus so we got a good view of the sprawling city of 7 million as we drove into the center. It was hot and humid and we were unsure of where we were as it related to our tiny map-pin of a destination. That is a challenge of living in Airbnbs - you can’t just ask a taxi driver to take you to the Sheraton.
Turns out, UBER abandoned the SE Asia market a week prior to our arrival, so we needed to switch over to the Malaysian ride-share company called GRAB. We quickly set up an account on Michael's iPhone but then came the challenge of using a new App in a foreign country. Since were weren’t sure where we were within the bus terminal it was hard to determine a pick-up point and communicate with a driver. We kept getting canceled, so we tried the regular taxis - but the drivers were equally uninterested in our little piece of paper with our address on it and waved us away. Hmmm. Finally, like the story of The Little Engine that Could, we found a willing woman GRAB driver who worked really hard to find us and then was happy to take us anywhere we’d like to go. Thank you, Lord. She dropped us at the new high-rise condo building where would spend the week in our Airbnb on the 21st floor.
The place was large and clean and had a great view. And there was a nice pool and a gardens on the rooftop. A grocery store that made me giddy and several restaurants and coffee shops (including Starbucks) were in the new mall just around the corner. We weren’t in the center of town, but with GRAB and the free city buses we got around okay.
We took our first day as a “rest day” and didn’t do much but catch up on writing, strolled the mall, napped, had a swim and prepared a nice big salad and lemon-pepper chicken for dinner. Now we were ready to see the city. The next day we took our usual free walking tour in the center of the city and discovered the British influences in the pubs and civic buildings. The Chinese also made their mark with their Klan dynasties, and Indian culture and food was plentiful - you could hear India town well before you arrived! The tour finished at a British Gentlemen's Club called The Spotted Dog where, to this very day, women are not admitted in the bar.
A few days later, we took a second walking tour in the Kampung Baru neighborhood where only 127 original houses remain tucked in the shadows of KL’s massive skyscrapers. Somehow this modest community still thrives and has a vibrant marketplace where we grazed on delicious street-food and held our noses as we passed the durian vendors. I didn’t know much about that stinky fruit (smells sort of sickly sweet like road-kill with a whif of blue cheese) - but it is beloved here. If you happened to buy a few pieces be advised you cannot take it on public transportation, into a hotel or office building, and certainly not on an airplane. It smells that bad.
It poured on and off that day. More than once we had to tuck into doorways for ten minutes or so to wait it out but the rain also cleared the air and lowered the humidity level a degree or two. In the evening we walked a solid 10,000 steps to find the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, in all their shimmering glory. This truly has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
The Airbnb office in Sydney suggested we take some of their Experiences while we were traveling through Asia so we booked an outdoor adventure just outside the city limits. It was called Hiking the Forest Reserve. I would say it was the most strenuous exercise we’ve done that didn’t involve hauling luggage up 6 flights of stairs. Our guide Ronnie took us and one other guest, a woman who happened to be an Airbnb employee from the Singapore office, on a trek through a forest that involved clambering up steep hillsides (still muddy from the rain the day before), along narrow trails, through a couple of streams, and down into a ravine where we finally reached a beautiful pool and waterfall. Too bad we had to reverse the process. My Allbird shoes were not the most appropriate footwear and may never recover - but we did, eventually. Ronnie was a kind and gracious guide. He didn’t rush us and treated us with respect and good humor as we cautiously made our way along the steep trails. We’ve gotten this far in one piece - why risk it now!
We filled another day in KL with a trip to the National Museum followed by a few hours in the largest bird park in Asia. And in keeping with our “birdie” theme, we took in a badminton tournament. It is a really competitive sport here, and it was fun to watch the super fans decked out in team colors banging drums and giving shout-outs to the players. Michael got in another football match, this time between First Division Football Selangor vs Kuala Lumpur. Getting there and back took all of his newfound GRAB skills - and it was late at night and far away. But as always, he made it back with even more football stories to tell.
In keeping with the incredible hospitality in this part of the world, a young man gave us an entire Sunday to make sure we enjoyed his city from a local’s perspective. His name is Kevin and he is a former Airbnb employee. We'd planned to meet for lunch - but he had a more ambitious agenda in mind. He picked us up and drove us to meet his mother and grandmother for breakfast in their neighborhood market.
It was so delightful to be shown what to order in the hawker stalls. I had dumplings and spicy noodles with prawns followed by sticky, sweet cakes and fresh fruit juice. Michael chose egg pancakes and fresh mango. Kevin’s mom was adorable and kept pushing food our way and sent us away with a big bag of puffy prawn crackers the size of Little League mitts. Afterwards, we took a drive around the edges of the city and ended up in a trendy neighborhood, where, according to Kevin, it was time to eat again! He wanted us to try the regions most popular dishes served up on banana leaf. Okay! We climbed some narrow stairs that opened into a room jammed with communal tables that were overflowing with people of all ages enjoying fried foods, spicy curries, and salads and slaws. This was a place we would never have tried on our own!
The restaurant had a system that a tourist would never have figured out so we were thankful that Kevin was there to guide us. It wasn’t like you got a menu and had a moment to ponder. What you got was a banana leaf slapped down by a harried waiter that only wanted to know two things. Meat or fish and how spicy? And maybe what you’d like to drink - but that’s it. Before you knew it, another server was slapping rice on your leaf along with some other sides. And a third swooped in with our whole grilled fish and curried chicken. And a crab.
Silverware was for sissies, so I did my best to eat with my hands like a local. Michael observed all of this and just nibbled a bit of chicken - he was saving room for ice cream. It’s days like this where we can spend time with locals in their own neighborhood that makes this Senior Nomad journey worthwhile.
Our last stop in Malaysia was George Town on the island of Penang. I’d read it was the food capital of the country, and was also known for its inventive street art culture and genteel, fading architecture.
Our Airbnb was one of the most unusual we’ve ever stayed in. It was a very traditional row house in the old town and while it was beautiful and richly decorated, inside it was like living in a cave.
That was because there were houses stuck to either side and the only natural light came in from the front door and some tinted windows upstairs. When our host showed us how things worked I should have paid closer attention to the myriad of light switches she showed me. We needed most every one. It was a quiet, cool refuge from the heat and hectic life just outside, but I think we were seduced by the pictures - as beautiful as it was we wouldn't choose to live there.
Having just finished the book I mentioned earlier, I was anxious to walk the same streets I'd read so much about. I wish I could have taken the “Gift of Rain” walking tour but it wasn't available on our dates. So instead we took a broader tour of the city and discovered temples, Klan Houses and colorful alleys filled with street art. Along the way I was able to recognize buildings and places from the book.
The most amazing street art we saw was by a Lithuanian artist named Earnest Zacharevic. He is worth looking up and finding more of his images that incorporate objects like bicycles, motorbikes and swings. As I was taking the shot below, an elderly gentleman came into the frame. It's my favorite shot of our time there.
We also took the funicular to the top of Penang Hill where the Japanese Army headquartered during the occupation. The view back to the city through the lush jungle was really stunning. We walked for a mile or so around the top and finished at the Monkey House where you could get a free shuttle back to the funicular for the price of a cup of coffee. Lovely.
We ate well in both China Town and Little India. Colorful ethnic enclaves that served delicious, authentic food in exchange for very little money! I ate my fill of Lasi Namak and looked forward to my delicious daily breakfast of sticky rice and spicy lamb or fish wrapped in, yes, banana leaf with a soft egg. My feelings about this city were colored by my book and I got the sense that not much has changed in the pace and appreciation of life in this idylic city.
In fact, I would say life in Malaysia seems just fine. If you have money, there is no end to ways to indulge yourself, and if you don’t, the simple things life like a good meal, a loving family, and beautiful country open for exploring seem just as rewarding.
Off to Bangkok to see what all the fuss is about!
Thanks for following along!
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads.