Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang

Penang, Malaysia
Penang might be a small island* off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but it is probably the country’s most popular destination to visit. Penang boasts a lot of heritage architecture, great street food, a mountain, and a small but pleasant national park on its northwestern coast. Penang was one of the British Empire’s former Straits Settlement, and its capital George Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it shares with Malacca, another former Straits Settlement. With almost 40% of its population being Malaysian-Chinese, Penang has the highest proportion of Chinese in Malaysia and is one of the country’s most multicultural places.

The capital George Town has an extensive heritage district that boasts many historic colonial buildings including a fort, Chinese temples and halls, shophouses, churches, mosques, and mansions. This is similar to Ipoh, the inland city which was my previous stop on this trip, though much more extensive. Some of the buildings have been restored and look very new while those that had not still have a sort of old-time charm.

There are also several murals in various buildings, with the most well-known painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (I only came across two or three of them but I wasn’t actively searching for them). Popular with tourists, Zacharevic painted them in 2012 for the George Town Festival. My favorite mural, the “Indian Fisherman,” was painted by another artist.

One of the most well-known sites is the Clan Jetties, several long waterfront piers along which entire Malaysian-Chinese clans live. I found several of them quite touristy with gaudy signs and lots of souvenir stalls, but there were also a couple of quiet ones. To be honest, I found the view of the sea from the end of the jetties more interesting than the actual jetties. As people actually live there, remember to be respectful when walking around and taking photos.

One notable piece of Chinese history in Penang is the Sun Yat-sen Museum, the preserved house where the Chinese revolutionary Sun, often considered the “father of modern China,” lived for several months in 1910. While there, he organized and raised funds from the local Chinese community in his efforts to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty. The house is a fine, elegant two-story dwelling that is very long and features open space in the centre.

Penang is famous for food. However, I’m not a foodie and was traveling solo, so I didn’t indulge in too much of the local delicacies. I did enjoy Chinese noodles and Indian food, as well as nasi kandar, which is rice with fried chicken.

*Penang also includes part of the neighboring coastal mainland called Seberang Parai, which is larger than the island. But travelers usually just go to the island, which for all purposes is Penang.

How to get there: You can fly to Penang or you can cross over on a car ferry from the mainland, after getting off the train at Butterworth station (which I did).

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia
Goddess of Mercy temple (Kuan Yin Teng), built in 1728, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang”

Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Formosa Moon- book review

As both a travelogue and a sort-of memoir, Formosa Moon sees Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, bringing his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman that he would eventually return to Taiwan.

As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on journeys around the island nation so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist staples of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed down the East Coast and to Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They then swing around to the southwest to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.

Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in art, especially puppetry, there is a strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.

Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, the pair also venture to lesser-known places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt county of Taitung.

Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s first-time experience of the country, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan. It also helps that the book is filled with color photos so readers can see a bit of the places themselves.

It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient landmarks or stunning beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.

One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone elderly resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is excusable.

There are several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure county sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.

Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as describing arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. One of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.

Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan (and Asia), she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It seems appropriate that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.

Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other. It is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.

This is the abridged version of my review of Formosa Moon, the full version of which I wrote for Asia Review of Books.

Taiwan’s election shocks

Last Saturday, Taiwan held a monumental local election. Taiwanese voted for city mayors, county and village heads, local councils, and, concurrently, voted on an unprecedented referendum with 10 items on issues like same-sex marriage, nuclear power and the official name of Taiwan’s sports teams. There were shocks in both the election and referendum as the ruling DPP (it controls the presidency and legislature, and had ruled the majority of cities and counties before this election) suffered massive losses in the elections while progressive causes on the referendum slate were defeated soundly. Many op-eds and analyses have been written about this online and in media outlets, so I will add my two cents here.

The ruling DPP, which is pro-independence and originated in the south, lost control of 7 cities and counties, holding on to only 6 of them. The KMT’s city and county winning margin of 15-6 (with the capital Taipei still undecided due to an appeal by the KMT candidate) was bad enough. However, the big shock was the DPP losing their southern stronghold Kaohsiung, the south’s biggest city, to a populist KMT populist candidate who ran a remarkable campaign. The DPP also lost Taichung, Taiwan’s biggest central city, and several southern counties. While the DPP won Tainan, another of their southern strongholds, it was by a much smaller than expected margin. The DPP’s defeat was bad enough that President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the DPP’s chairman, while Premier William Lai offered to resign.

This is a serious blow that has far greater ramifications beyond domestic politics, because the DPP and President Tsai had been in the vanguard of resistance against China. Now, President Tsai’s authority has been weakened and she will be vulnerable in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The DPP has to do a lot of thinking about what went wrong and how to recover.

The KMT is openly pro-China, having originated in China and then come over after losing the civil war to the Communists. While the KMT allowed Taiwan to become democratic after decades of martial law, they have always maintained their old view of Taiwan and China being one country. Already, several KMT winners, such as Kaohsiung’s Han Guo-yu, have already said they will want to turn to China and follow the 1992 Consensus (a made-up agreement coined after a meeting between the KMT and China in which both sides are supposedly part of the same country). Obviously, the DPP and President Tsai have refused to recognize this because it implies Taiwan belongs to China, and obviously China and Xi Jinping are annoyed with this.

The DPP have been blamed for several issues ranging from a botched labor law reform effort to pension reform to economic problems to failing to be progressive enough, which brings me to the following point.

For many locals and expats, the big disappointment was with the referendum results. This was because gay marriage took up 5 of the 10 questions. Three questions were anti-gay marriage while two were pro, a reflection of Taiwan’s political freedom and quirky nature. In the end, all the anti-gay marriage questions passed while the two pro-gay marriage ones failed.

This caused some people to question Taiwan’s supposedly progressiveness, given Taiwan made international headlines in 2017 for being the first Asia nation to legalize gay marriage. However, the government did not follow through and did not pass a law to do so, hence why this issue ended up on the referendum. A lot of people think that this reflected a lack of courage from the government.

Personally, I’m not surprised the pro-gay marriage referendum items did not pass since there are still a lot of older people as well as conservative traditionalists (many, but not all who are indeed old). I also think the referendum should not have listed 10 questions which was a lot and caused voting delays in some areas, especially Taipei, as people struggled to understand all the questions.

Coming back to the city and county elections, I think the DPP failed because it overextended itself and got complacent. It made too many promises which meant a diverse array of society, from the LGBT community to pro-independence advocates, put a lot of hopes in the DPP. When change failed to materialize as quickly and as easily as thought, a lot of people were sorely disappointed. I agree with the head of a Danish NGO focused on Taiwan matters quoted here who said that the DPP’s economic initiatives haven’t taken effect yet since two years (President Tsai was elected in 2016) is not enough time. Taiwan’s economy has been in the doldrums for over 10 years and the previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, couldn’t do anything during his eight years in power. Chinese interference in the elections can hardly be ruled out, whether it be secret donations to KMT and other groups, the spreading of fake news and other forms of online propaganda.

While Taiwan’s progressive reputation may have suffered a setback, I also think that the fact many people still voted and endured long lines to do so, displayed Taiwan’s democracy is still strong. What concerns me is the weakening of President Tsai and the DPP, while the KMT now has a bigger chance for 2020.

Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
While Kandy by itself is not that remarkable other than its lively cultural shows and the temple of the Buddhist Tooth, there is a lot of fascinating sites outside of the city. This includes the Dambulla Buddhist cave, an elephant sanctuary with dozens of elephants, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Dambulla is about two hours’ drive, the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is about an hour away, while the botanical gardens is very close, less than 30 minutes by bus.

Dambulla is a collection of several Buddhist caves filled with Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the first century BC. Located inside a series of caves on the top of a small hill, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a good place to visit along with Sigiriya if you’re going by car (check with your hotel for a driver). There are five caves, differing in size, with Buddhist statues, murals and even stupas. The murals are very beautiful, though in general, I found Dambulla underwhelming. At the foot of the hill is a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha statue.

I’m not exactly a big fan of trees and flowers but I was very impressed by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, so much that I spent almost two hours there strolling around and taking photos. Not only is it huge and feature a diverse collection of over 4,000 trees, plants, an orchid house, a spice garden, and enormous bamboo groves, but it has a colony of large fruit bats sleeping on several trees. As I visited during the day, those guys were all asleep and it was easy to take pictures of them. It was the first time I’ve seen bats sleeping in the outside during the day and it was a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable sight (not a bat fan too).

There is a central “great circle,” lawns, as well as an avenue shaded on both sides by giant palm trees. Among the most fascinating trees to look out are a giant Javan fig tree, which has a sprawling umbrella-like canopy, and Coco de Mers or double coconut palms, which bear coconuts of 10-20 kg that are the world’s heaviest nut or fruit!
The botanical garden was established in 1821 by the British, though Kandy kings had set up gardens on the site in previous centuries.

I had a slightly unpleasant experience as I was showed around the orchid house by an employee, who then asked for a tip at the end. I didn’t give him much but I don’t like it when people do something for you and then demand money, especially for something like a 5 minute tour of the orchid house, which was included in the garden’s entrance fee. A similar experience would later happen to me in Colombo at the natural history museum and I refused to give a tip (still annoyed over the orchid house guy).

I had a surprisingly pleasant experience when I came upon a bunch of local Muslim youths. They ran up to me and started crowding me, but in a friendly manner. These guys couldn’t speak much English and couldn’t tell me where they were (Sri Lanka! was all they could say) or what school or organization they were but we managed to take a few photos.


Colonial-era building in Kandy
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens”

Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park

Penang National Park, Malaysia
Malaysia’s island* state of Penang is rightfully known for being a food and heritage paradise, but there are other things to do besides eating and wandering around historical neighborhoods. Hiking on Penang Hill is one, and trekking in Penang National Park is another. That’s right, Penang has its own national park which covers a corner of its northwestern point, featuring beaches, forest paths, and a little turtle conservation center.

While sometimes described as the world’s smallest national park, it is still a decent place to get lost (figuratively speaking) in forest and hike to secluded beaches. There are two main beaches- Monkey Beach and Turtle Beach – which you can hike directly to on different trails from the park entrance. The latter is where the turtle conservation center is located. When I visited, there were a few mid-sized turtles and a few tiny baby turtles. I’m not sure if there are monkeys at the former, but there are definitely monkeys on the trails.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

If you’d rather not hike through the forest, you can take boat rides at the entrance to get to the beaches directly.

Right before Turtle Beach, there is a meromictic lake, where there are two distinct layers of water – one saltwater from the sea, and the other freshwater from the rain. However, this lake is only full during the monsoon season from May-November so unfortunately, when I went there in January, it was just a dried lakebed.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

How to get there: In Penang, you can take the 101 or 103 bus from the KOMTAR bus terminal and get off at the final stop, which is the park. The ride takes around 45 minutes.
Note: The park is free but you need to register at the front desk.

*Penang actually consists of an island (the main part) as well as a small part of the mainland coast next to the island. This mainland part is called Seberang Perai, which is where Butterworth train station is located (from the train station, you transfer to a ferry to get to Penang island). Continue reading “Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park”