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”

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.

Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
Milan might be Italy’s most prosperous and modern city but it also boasts several impressive historical sights. These include the massive Duomo cathedral, Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, and the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a 1,600-year-old Roman church.

Sforza Castle is a handsome brownish-red castle that was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan that was one of Europe’s largest citadels at one point. The great Leonardo da Vinci decorated part of the interior. It boasts a central tower that looms high above the walls of the castle, which is built in a quadrangular shape. Inside, the castle is divided into three courtyards, the main one, and the smaller Ducale and Rocchetta.

Nowadays, the castle is also a giant museum complex, housing several connected museums that feature paintings, medieval weapons, musical instruments, tapestries, antique furniture, prehistoric artifacts, and even Egyptian artifacts. There is even the last work of the great Michelangelo, an unfinished marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus’ dead body.

It is an impressive diverse collection of exhibits that lets you explore the castle, while appreciating great art and artifacts and learning about Milanese history. I do find having museums inside a castle is a great way to make use of such a historic building while allowing visitors to double up on their enjoyment. Even if these museums weren’t in this castle, they would be worth checking out.

The castle is also used as venue for events like a vintage car show that was going on when I visited, which included sports cars from the 1960s and 1970s and antique pre-World War II cars. The castle is in Sempione Park, that also features an aquarium and a modern museum, which unfortunately I didn’t visit.
Milan, Italy

Built in 379–386, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is a Roman-era church that is also brownish-red, similar to Sforza Castle. As befitting one of Milan’s main churches, the basilica is quite elegant with a smooth exterior, which again is similar to Sforza Castle. It features a triangular roof and a portico with arches with an enclosed open courtyard in front of it, flanked by two bell towers on either side. The shorter tower was built in the 9th century while the other one was built in the mid-12th century. Inside, the crypt features the remains of three saints – Ambrose, who the church is named after, Gervasus and Protasus.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

How to get there: For Sforza Castle, get off at Cairoli Castello subway station on the Red Line or Lanza station on the Green Line.
For Basilica of Sant’Ambroglio, get off at S. Ambrogio subway station on the Green Line.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
Inside the basilica Continue reading “Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica”

Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
The word Ipoh might conjure puzzled looks or recognition of a certain coffee brand. But Ipoh is actually one of Malaysia’s largest cities, the former center of the nation’s tin mining industry, and a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. It is also a rising travel destination in its own right, and rightfully so.

Lying between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (roughly speaking) as well as between KL and the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh used to be overlooked. But Ipoh has a very decent old town with impressive colonial-era buildings, a thriving cafe culture, and is surrounded by limestone hills, some of which harbor well-known Buddhist cave temples. Ipoh also is home to white coffee and the Old Town brand, which is popular across parts of Asia such as Hong Kong.

When I plan my travel trips, I try to visit lesser-known cities that have decent attractions. Examples include Hiroshima, Milan, and Hue in Central Vietnam. Ipoh is another example. Having traveled by train from KL, when you arrive in Ipoh, you have already visited one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, Ipoh train station. While not very big, the 101-year-old station is regal in its all-white form incorporating Edwardian Baroque and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.

Across the street from the train station is the city’s Old Town, which features more stately colonial-era buildings, shophouses, and a large mosque. There are also several large murals dispersed across the Old Town, painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the well-known murals in Georgetown, Penang’s capital. Also in the Old Town are several modern cafes and old Chinese restaurants. One particularly impressive building I came upon was an art boutique center in which the building’s old, worn-down exterior was left intact while the interior was renovated. The building in the top photo in this post follows a similar concept – don’t be fooled by the hanging plants, the shops at the bottom are new, modern cafes.

Ipoh lies in the Kinta River Valley, surrounded by limestone hills and tin deposits. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a booming tin mining industry hence its stately colonial-era buildings and large Chinese community, many of whom worked in the tin mines. However, the tin deposits were depleted in the 1970s and the city suffered a decline. Recently, Ipoh has seen a resurgence thanks to tourism, with the city having made an effort to renovate and conserve its heritage buildings. Ipoh did not have an air of decline at all, and seemed fairly well-off by Southeast Asian and Malaysia standards.

Ipoh’s large Malaysian-Chinese community is mainly Cantonese-speaking, being made up of Cantonese (people whose ancestors were from China’s Guangdong Province) and Hakkas (also from Guangdong but with a more complex origin. Half of my family is also Hakka). Penang, in contrast, has a Chinese community that is mainly Hokkien-speaking (a language from China’s Fujian Province, which many Taiwanese speak as week). Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most famous actress, is from Ipoh.
The city’s Hakka heritage is preserved in Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club, a former clubhouse for Hakkas which is now a museum.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Across the street from the museum are Chinese eateries serving specialties like bean-sprout chicken and Hakka mee (noodles). There are a few lanes which historically served as the homes of prostitutes or mistresses, hence two of them are called Concubine Lane. These lanes have been renovated for tourists and instead of ladies, are filled with stores, cafes and hostels. Ipoh white coffee originally was made from beans roasted with margarine and served with condensed milk, though nowadays white coffee doesn’t need to be roasted with margarine. Apparently the white coffee has a caramel flavour when roasted with margarine, which I found a little off-putting.

What was surprisingly pleasant to realize was that Ipoh’s Cantonese are probably the most polite Cantonese-speakers I’ve encountered in Asia. People who have been to Hong Kong or Guangdong might know what I mean. Whenever I spoke to local Chinese, whether service staff or museum guide or even an entrepreneur at the center I mentioned above, they were all polite in responding to my queries, with none of the surliness or brusqueness you’d get in Hong Kong.

Ipoh is also famous for its limestone hills just outside the city. While not as beautiful as the ones in Guangxi, China or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, Ipoh’s limestone hills are pleasant enough. In fact, so pleasant that several temples were built inside of these hills. I visited three of these cave temples, but a fourth turned out to be closed even though it was only 2.30 pm.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh Train Station
Ipoh, Malaysia

From the way I’ve written about Ipoh, you might think everything was fantastic. But the truth is I had a few small issues. First is my hotel was actually next to a mosque, which you know broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. For some reason, the morning call was particularly long and would go on for at least 20 minutes. I have nothing against mosques (I actually visited one in Ipoh, after I was invited in by two friendly local volunteer guides, but not the one next to my hotel) but I wouldn’t want to stay next to one in the future.

Second is Ipoh’s buses are very scarce and not reliable. While I knew in advance they only come about once an hour, I twice experienced seeing buses drive past me while I was waiting at bus stops outside the cave temples to return to Ipoh (I’d taken the bus from the Ipoh station to get to those places). Given I was the only one at the stop and that these buses don’t get many passengers, perhaps the drivers just didn’t see me. I ended up getting a taxi back to Ipoh both times.
Third is the Old Town is rather quiet at night and most of the streets are dark as there aren’t many restaurants or bars open, besides the street next to the Hakka Miners’ Club.

But weirdly enough, I actually enjoyed visiting Ipoh and all these issues couldn’t make up for the good experiences. I heartily recommend visiting Ipoh if you go to Malaysia.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh, Malaysia
Two of Ipoh’s giant murals done by Ernest Zacharevic (above and below)
Ipoh, Malaysia
Continue reading “Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh”

How to deal with too much tourism?

Among all the serious problems the world is facing now, one of them stems from a surprising source. I’m talking about excess tourism, or the problem of places having too many tourists. This has become a worldwide problem, affecting places like Barcelona and Venice, as well as islands in Thailand and the Philippines. Travel is generally a very good activity, as the vast number of people who travel and the growing revenues of tourism worldwide would attest, not to mention blogs like mine that focus a lot on traveling. However, excess tourism causes major issues such as affecting local people’s lives severely and damaging the environment.

In Venice, tourism is being blamed for pushing small businesses out of the city centre as more people open businesses like restaurants and souvenir shops catering to tourists rather than locals. In Barcelona, locals have taken to protesting tourists and even targeting tour buses as they blame tourism on lack of housing, rising rents, overcrowded public transportation. The Philippines have closed down Boracay, an island filled with beaches and resorts, for six months in April to try to clean up rising pollution while Thailand did the same with Maya Bay, where the backpacker film The Beach was filmed. But while you can close off small islands and beaches, you can’t do the same with cities. How can the problem of excess tourism be solved? I’d like to think there are a few ways the authorities and travelers can try.

While the world has become much smaller due to the power of the internet and the convenience of smartphones and the prevalence of flights, especially budget airlines, certain places often get a huge amount of travelers. In particular, these include, besides Venice and Barcelona, cities like Paris, Dubrovnik and Bangkok, as well as Bali and Phuket. Look at the most prolific travel blogs or travelers on Instagram, and you will certainly see posts of these places flooding your feed.

So what can be done about this?
The tourism authorities of countries and cities need to try harder to promote lesser-known cities and attractions to visitors. Meanwhile, travelers should consider going to less famous destinations themselves. I try to do this on my travels such as when I chose Milan (it’s not an unknown city of course, but for travel, it’s not that popular) on my trip to Europe or Ipoh earlier this year. Of course, you should visit famous cities (it’d be a shame to visit France and not go to Paris) but diversifying where you go would also be good. For instance, instead of Venice, consider Bologna, instead of Bali, consider Flores; and instead of Barcelona, consider Valencia. When you read a top 10 list of cities or places, aim for numbers 4,5,6 etc rather than the top 3.

Second is while saving money is good, sometimes we need to consider whether the money we spend is really going back to the community. AirBnb is considered a big problem since rather than homeowners renting out spare rooms, which was the original intent, you get firms or landlords buy up multiple properties specifically to rent out to tourists. This not only raises local property prices but also deprives locals of apartments to rent or buy. Keep in mind that while hotels and hostels need to pay business taxes, most AirBnb homes do not do this, thus limiting how much of your money goes into the local economy.

Third is people can consider traveling during shoulder or off-peak seasons. As an example, I visited a part of southern Thailand during the summer, which is the rainy season and thus the tourist off-season, so there were not much tourists which made it easy to enjoy the various places. Also, it didn’t rain much. Because tourist numbers are not so numerous during off-peak seasons, when you travel during this time you help provide local hotels, businesses and drivers with much-needed business whilst also helping alleviate high tourism numbers during the peak seasons.

You can read more good points about this problem from established bloggers here and here.

Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.