Friday, August 31, 2012

Hari Merdeka

Fifty five years ago today on a cricket ground in the middle of KL the Union Flag was lowered for the last time and the flag of Malaysian was raised in its place.  In preparations for Independence Day celebrations, the city has been awash with red, white, and blue.  There isn't a building in town without at least one flag somewhere on display.

Happy independence day everyone!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Visiting the killing fields

I've been putting this post off for a while because I just didn't know what I should say. Truth be told, I still don't know what I could possibly say to do it justice.

I have been to some pretty depressing and depraved sites in my time.  Being drawn to them comes with the territory of being fascinated by history.  Of everywhere I've been, Choeung Ek, the killing field just outside of Phnom Pehn, is by far the most eerily depressing.  The feeling it gives off has less to do with what the site was used for than with its current state.

Most of its mass graves were excavated in the 1980's, but the rest were left as they were.  For me, the eeriness comes from the fact that there are still thousands of victims lying in their mass graves on the site.  Bones, teeth, and pieces of clothing are continually being washed to the surface with heavy rains.  Once there the remains are left until someone comes to collect and care for it.  Let's just say that the image of a human femur lying on the ground waiting to be picked up and placed in a pile of other bones from other people isn't the easiest image to get out of your head.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek

Originally an old Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek was transformed into a place of execution and burial for the victims of Pol Pot's regime.  This specific "killing field" was used for those who had been imprisoned at S-21 in Phnom Penh.  Prisoners were held at S-21 where they were tortured and forced to confess crimes as vastly different as disliking the regime and being in the paid employ of the CIA.  Once prisoners ran out of things to confess they were loaded into a truck and shipped off to Choeung Ek where most were most were hacked to death* and thrown into a pit.  Once in the mass graves, lye was thrown on top to both hide the smell of decaying flesh from those living nearby and finish off those who were not yet dead.

*Lacking the funds to use bullets; the methods of execution varied greatly.  For example, there are reports that one of the two Australians who met their end here was burnt alive atop some tires in the road.

The site is incredibly depressing and you'll most likely need some time to decompress afterwards.  Given the overall psychological effect, is it worth visiting?  I think that the answer to that question has to be a resounding yes.  For me, it is the places that shock you the most that are the most thought provoking and therefore the most worth seeing.  

Don't get me wrong, I love to visiting art museums and sitting on outdoor patios with a glass of wine people watching all of the time, but in five years I'm not going to remember every work of art that I have seen or some odd combination that some crazy lady happened to be wearing.  This, I definitely will remember.  The thing that makes the site so depressing is exactly what makes it so worthwhile.  It will stick with you.  You won't be able to get it out of your head.  At risk of sounding like a broken recording of every history teacher on earth, those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it.  Given the subject matter, isn't the world going to be a better place if more people have images like that burned into the forefront of their minds? 

More in this series:

S-21: In the Shadow of the Khmer Rouge
A photo tour of Phnom Penh 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Monkeys in KL

Despite the fact that KL is a massive urban area you can still find wild monkeys running about in certain areas (the Lake Gardens, some of the suburbs, golf courses, etc.).  If you want to almost  guarantee seeing them, your best bet is to head out to Batu Caves, where a troop of macaques pretty much have run of the place.  I say pretty much because sometimes they are chased away when something important is going on.  But most of the time the monkeys are running up and down the steps and playing on the sign posts, making them a big part of the attraction of the caves.  

By itself, the cave isn't overly impressive.  It's just a large cavern with a couple shrines inside.  However, the colors are spectacular and the monkeys are everywhere.  I keep finding myself being drawn to the place by what's been added to the site and not what was there originally.  And also the monkeys.  For me, watching them interact with one another never gets old.      

(Note: I grew up within a few hours of the world's longest cave system and going caving was a popular pass-time while at summer camp.  As a result, caves don't really impress me.  If caves aren't something you've spent a lot of time in before, you might find the cavern itself worth the visit as it is quite vast.)  

A word of warning: the monkeys at the caves can get quite aggressive so maintain a safe distance from them.  That being said, there isn't really anything that should worry you so long as you don't try to feed them and don't get stupidly close (like this).  Just keep in mind that the reason they're like that is because people do feed them and people do get up in their faces.  Even if you don't intend to share food with them, they're rather proficient in thievery, so unless you're there to make a sacrifice there is no need to bring anything edible with you at all.  There are several delicious and cheap Indian restaurants at the foot of the steps off to the left where you can get a roti to satisfy your hunger after climbing the steps.
Getting too close to the monkeys.  A minute after this was taken one of the photographers took a step forward.  The monkey snapped and hissed at him, grabbed his cell phone, and threw it into the bushes.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

The urge to stockpile

I have a confession to make.  You know those seriously extreme couponers that you sometimes see on American television who have enough dry goods stockpiled in their homes to survive a nuclear holocaust? Well, If we ever get to the point where we're not cleaning out our possessions in anticipation of a move every couple of years, I can see myself turning into one of them.  At this point I really wouldn't be surprised I ended up with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper sitting on portable shelving units in my living room.

Why?  Well, that, to a large extent, I blame on it living abroad.  I never used to be like this.  It all starts on a day just like any other.  You're all settled into your new home and new life and are at the point where you don't necessarily think about missing foods from home.  Then, as you walk through the grocery store around the corner from your apartment, out of the corner of your eye you spot it: some product from your home country that has never been there before.  You are so excited to see it on the shelf that you place every single one of them into your cart.  A brief pang of guilt causes you to put a few back on the shelf for your fellow countrymen to find, but the majority of them are yours.  As you leave the shop you call everyone you know to inform them that X product can be found at Y store but to hurry because they're almost out.

For me that product was Pop-tarts.  I don't even really eat Pop-tarts.  I can count on both hands how many I've had them in my entire life.  But that didn't stop me from buying six boxes in a flavor that I don't particularly care for the day they magically appeared at the grocery in Prague.

It's only gone downhill from there.

There is something about never knowing if the grocery store is actually going to have tortilla chips in stock that leads an otherwise normal purchaser to buy bags by the dozen when they actually are available (which I suspect is probably what led to the shortage in the first place, but hey, at least I won't run out of chips).  It is this compulsion to have foods from home that leads perfectly sane human beings who prefer vinaigrettes to ranch on salads to schlep a suitcase full of ranch dressing mix packets across the Atlantic.

But it can't just be the desire to enjoy something comforting from home that drives me to do this because I do it when I'm traveling as well.  If I find something I like and I know I'm not going to be able to get at home I will inevitably end up with a couple dozen of them in my bag.

Do I have a tendency to overbuy?  Maybe.  But unlike the blueberry Pop-tart incident, the vast majority of the time I buy things that I like and will definitely use.  I might have thirty or so tins of vaseline, but who knows how long it will be before one of us goes back to the UK and can buy some more.

My kitchen has a shelf dedicated to tea.  The majority of its contents come from either a small tea shop in Covent Garden or from the organic tea line carried by DM in Germany.  When we leave Malaysia, I'm sure several bags of loose-leaf Malaysian tea and boxes of Boh will be coming with me.  (Anyone who thinks one tea is just as good as another has obviously never tried Lipton Yellow Label).

My wine rack is still stocked with wines we bought in New Zealand and South Africa.  Although those, like the rest of my stocks, are disappearing at a rate so alarming that I am thinking that rationing might be in order.

It's not like this stuff sits around until it goes bad and I have to throw it away.  It gets enjoyed.  By the time I return to the place from which the goods came, they're long gone and I need to buy another couple dozen to replenish my stocks.

I sincerely hope I'm not the only one who does this.  Is there a product you absolutely love but can't get at home?  Do you resort to stockpiling it?

Friday, August 17, 2012

KL Friday: Spending a day in Chinatown

One thing seems to be constant in cities the world over: if you’re looking for a knockoff, your best bet is in Chinatown.  But there is far more to KL’s Chinatown than the long street lined with vendors hawking faux Prada.  So if you’re not in the market for counterfeit goods, it’s still quite easy to spend a day there.

It's easy enough to get to as well.  If you're driving, there are several garages within a few blocks and there is a parking lot just in front of the Central Market.  Alternatively, you can take the LRT to either Pasar Seni or Masjid Jamek.

Masjid Jamek

In addition to having the distinction of being the oldest mosque in the city, it also sits on the site of the Klang valley's original settlement.  Located at the convergence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, a visit here will show you where Kuala Lumpur gets its name.  The mosque is the real attraction at this spot though.  In English Kuala Lumpur means "muddy estuary" and it's just as fitting of a moniker for the site today as it was when it was founded.

Visiting hours are from 8:30-12:30 and 2:30-4:30.  Friday is not a good time to visit because it's packed for prayers.  As it is a functioning religious site you need to dress appropriately to see the inside.  Make sure your limbs are covered and women need a headscarf.

Central Market

You can tell by looking at it that this building is a holdover from imperial times when it housed a wet market.  Today, much like one hundred years ago, people still sell goods within its walls.  Although now instead of fish and durian it’s handcrafts and clothing that are being hawked.  Probably the most interesting part of the market is the way it’s organized, with three streets downstairs being dedicated to the traditional goods of each of Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups.  While there you can take a break from browsing and shopping to try the craze that swept Asia a few years ago.  

Someone somewhere thought it would be a good idea to put small fish in a tank, charge people to stick their feet in, and call it a pedicure.  I wish I was that someone.  Let's face it, the overhead on maintaining a tank of fish can't be that high.  I’ve seen some spas in town charge insane amounts for it and I’m sure they’re making a killing.  If you’re inclined to try it save your money for actual spa treatments (although those are quite cheap here as well), and have a go at the tanks inside the Central Market where 5 Ringgits buys you 10 minutes of feeding time. 

It’s a really odd sensation but I have to admit that the little buggers did remove most of the dead skin from my feet.  Be forewarned though, there are two large tanks right next to each other in the market.  One contains smaller and less aggressive fish, the other contains what amounts to toothless piranhas.  I wish I had known there was a difference between them before I stuck my feet into the tank filled with giants so consider this me doing my part by passing the information along.

The Central Market opens at 10:00. 

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Chinatown is also home to the city's oldest Hindu Temple.  It is from here on Thaipusam that the procession to Batu Caves some 16 kilometers away begins.  What makes it especially interesting is that the faithful go the whole way with an offering of giant jugs of milk over their shoulders like this guy:
The inside of the temple is as beautiful as the outside.  You have to leave your shoes at the entrance but there is a shoe check off to the left and for .20 MYR you can be guarenteed that your shoes will be there when you get back.


Plastic chair places and hawker stalls abound in Chinatown so there is no shortage of places to stop for some really good local food while you are there.  There is one in particular across the street from the temple that I love that serves amazing sizzling prawns.  If you are interested, as you are leaving the temple cross the street and turn left, it’s on the corner about a half a block up.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

The cost of living in KL

Most of the questions I receive through the site are from people who are trying to put together a realistic budget for living in Kuala Lumpur either because they are about to move or are trying to decide if they should do so.  Most of the cost of living indexes I've seen online seem out of date, so I've put together a list of general prices for essentials and recurring expenses.  I think I've covered most of the big things, but if I've left something off and you're curious please don't hesitate to ask.

Housing and Utilities

  • Rent:   This is going to vary greatly upon the neighborhood, the size and type of housing, the age of the building, etc.  A listing of available rental options can be found here.  Keep in mind that the listed prices are usually negotiable.
  • Electricity:   The first electric bill we ever received here was north of 4,000 MYR (> $1,250 USD).  While the bill was for all electricity used in the unit since it had been constructed and therefore a portion of it was our landlord’s responsibility, receiving that bill didn’t make for a very fun day.  We now mainly use the ceiling fans unless it gets too hot out and only run the air conditioning at night.  Some nights we don’t even need the A/C because we’re up high enough that there is a nice breeze.  Since we’ve started doing that an average electric bill is around 175 MYR.
  • Water:   This is cheap.  A high monthly water bill would be 15 MYR, or about $5 USD.   
  • Gas:   Gas usually runs about 10 MYR ($3.20 USD) a month, and I like to cook.
  • TV and Internet:   Astro has a monopoly on the television world, so if you want decent channels you have to go through them.  At the moment they have a TV/high speed broadband package on offer for 248 MYR ($83 USD) a month.

Food and Beverage
  • Groceries:   The freshest and cheapest produce can be found at the wet markets.  To give you an idea of pricing there, I recorded and itemized one of my shopping trips to the TTDI wet market.  Western, dairy, and imported goods will all be more expensive.  Expect to pay around 20 MYR for a bag of shredded cheese, 7 MYR for a liter of milk, and anywhere between 14 and 24 MYR for a box of cereal.
  • Alcohol:   hefty sin tax makes alcohol in Malaysia expensive.  30-35 MYR is probably about the cheapest you’ll be able to find a drinkable bottle of wine.  There are quite a few good Aussie and New Zealand wines that are generally on sale for around 39 MYR.  The low midrange wines are generally somewhere in the 50 MYR range.  As far as beer goes, 110 MYR is a good price for a case of Carlsberg and a bottle of cider is generally around 12 MYR.  <---These are all grocery store prices.  Like everywhere else, expect the price of alcohol to go up when you’re out.  Wine prices on menus tend to be inflated at the same percentage they are elsewhere in the world and the going promotion for beer in pubs seems to be 50 MYR for three pints of something like Guinness.
  • Eating out:    This can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.  We’ve had massive dinners for 10 MYR at hawker stalls, but if you’re looking for a 300-600 MYR white linen multi-course meal that is easy to find as well.

Car and Transport Related Expenses
  • Cars:    Foreign made cars are subject to pretty steep import tariffs, which make them quite expensive.  For example, a basic Honda CR-V begins at the equivalent of $50,000 USD.  The import duty on foreign cars keeps demand for cars from the two Malaysian auto-makers, Proton and Perodua, relatively high.  The starting price for the Proton Saga is around 39,000 MYR ($13,000 USD).  The Perodua Viva starts at 25,000 MYR ($8,300ish USD) while their Myvi is listed from 44,000 MYR (14,700ish USD).
  • Auto Insurance:   Generally speaking, the best deal is to buy a year's insurance from the dealership at the same time you buy the car.   Before we bought my car we shopped around for independent insurance carriers but couldn't find anything better than what the dealer was offering.  The good news is that the starting prices quoted above for the Malaysian made cars include the price of insuring it for a year.
  • Gas:   The government subsidizes the price of gas and the price per liter hasn't changed in the year I've had my car.  It's currently 1.90 MYR/liter ($.64 USD/liter or $2.50/gallon).  
  • Tolls:   Most of the highways in Malaysia are toll roads.  The cost of each toll varies depending on the type of vehicle you’re in and what road you’re on.  Typical tolls around town range from 1.50 MYR-2.00MYR.  I spend an average of 30 MYR a month on tolls and parking combined.
  • Parking:    Parking prices vary.  There are garages that charge 1-3 MYR per entry and there are garages that charge 1-3 MYR an hour.  The former seems to be more common than the later.  It all depends upon what part of town you’re in and what time of day it is.   
  • Taxis:    Taxis are a viable alternative to having a car.    The meter starts at 3 MYR and goes up by .10 MYR for every 115 meters after that.  Waiting time is .10 MYR per 21 seconds after the first three minutes.  2 MYR is added if you called for the cab and 1 MYR is added if you need to use the trunk.  Other than to and from the airport, I’ve never had a cab ride cost more than 30 MYR.  They are usually far less expensive than that though.
  • Public Transport:   It doesn't seem to be often that the monorail and LRT go from somewhere you are to somewhere you want to go, but if it does it's a good transport option.  You can pay with the Touch 'n Go, which can also be used to pay for road tolls and several parking garages around the city.  Fares begin at .70 MYR.        


The going rate for a part-time house cleaner is around 5 MYR/hour.  If you go through a company it should be about 10-20 MYR/hour.  I have a general idea of what it would cost to hire a full-time live-in house keeper, but I don't have any personal experience with it so I'm not sure how accurate that idea is.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Olympics in Malaysia

"Thank God I don't have to watch anymore of the Olympics" was one of the thoughts running through my head as I left the United States to return home to KL.  Don't get me wrong, I like the Olympics.  I get incredibly giddy leading up to them and thoroughly enjoy the first several days of watching them.  But then NBC and other people ruin it for me.  At the end of the day, there is only so much of watching puff pieces instead of sports, only being able to watch the first and last minute of a race because they edited out the middle, hearing a reporter basically ask a swimmer who just finished a race and won a silver medal what it feels like to lose, and trying to get away from multiple people arguing that badminton shouldn't be an Olympic sport that I can take.  No matter how excited I am leading up to the games, my tv generally gets turned off and stays that way before the second week even begins.  As I left the US, I was done with them.

But then I landed in KL.  When I exited baggage claim, there was a noticeably large group of people milling about.  Josh and I were on separate flights and while I waited for him to get in the crowd kept growing.  By seven in the morning it looked like this:  

If you haven't been to KL, the airport is nowhere near the city, which translates into there being a very small number of people actually go out there to meet flights.  The arrivals hall never looks like that and it definitely doesn't look like that when rush hour is about to start.

My curiosity was piqued but being tired and too lazy to get up to ask someone what was going on I put the question out to Twitter.  Within two minutes about a dozen people had answered: the crowd was there to welcome home a Malaysian hero, Lee Chong Wei, who had just won the silver medal in London.  His sport?  Badminton.

By the time his flight landed the crowd resembled those that met the Beatles when they came to America.

And just like that, I was excited about the Olympics again.  This is exactly what they are supposed to be.  Being able to compete in them is a massive achievement in itself, and that achievement is only undermined by the things that tend to annoy me as outlined in the first paragraph.  Take that anti-badminton in the Olympics lady who stood in front of me in line in Minnesota.

For the record, my excitement grew exponentially when I got home and saw that we now have ten temporary ESPN channels, each showing a different sport without commercial interruption.  I might not leave my couch for the rest of the week.

Monday, August 6, 2012

My recent experience with Malaysian healthcare

First off, I would like to thank everyone for the well wishes over the past month and a half.  They were all very much appreciated and made me smile at a time when I really needed it.  The following is Part One of what's been going on in my life since I disappeared from the internet.

This entire debacle started one Friday morning in the middle of June when I woke up with lower back pain radiating into my abdomen.  Later that day part of my left foot was hit with a numb sensation somewhere between burning and pins and needles that wouldn’t go away.  Over the weekend the pain got worse and by Monday the numbness had spread to my whole foot and was slowly beginning to creep up my leg.

After a couple of doctor's visits I had some of x-rays and an MRI of my lumbar spine* taken.  I was shocked at how fast everything happened after the images were ordered.  Within fifteen minutes of the MRI being ordered I was in the machine.  A half hour after that the doctor was reading the image and telling me that I had a deteriorating and partially herniated disc that would probably heal itself in time.

The drugs he gave me helped with the pain but didn't stop the numbness from spreading.  It continued across more and more of my body until it got to the point where the entire left side of my body below my navel was affected and it was beginning to move up my right leg as well.  Then, just as I was becoming alarmed that I couldn’t feel heat or any other sensation in the numb areas, it all went away.  That weekend I was able to completely enjoy our anniversary in Phnom Penh.

But being relatively pain free with the ability to feel all of my extremities was short lived.  Within a day or two of getting back from Cambodia the pain and numbness returned and only got progressively worse.  

The timing of everything after our anniversary trip was terrible.  Josh had a two-week series of meetings in Europe, in the middle of which I was supposed to meet him in Prague to attend the wedding of a good friend.  I dropped him off to catch his flight to Amsterdam and went home to spend a painful and sleepless night lying on the floor.  At this point I began vomiting even though I had nothing in my stomach and developed two much more alarming symptoms: I was completely unable to empty my bladder and the muscle strength in my legs was rapidly deteriorating.  Even with these new additions, it took a full day of not being able to go to the bathroom while walking around like a drunken sailor before my mom and a friend finally succeeded in talking me into going to the hospital.

I have never in my life spent so little time in an emergency room waiting area.  Not two minutes after giving the evaluating nurse my information and telling her I was only there because I hadn't been able to pee in 25 hours I was whisked back into the ER and very shortly thereafter was being evaluated by a doctor.  I realize that in retrospect this sounds completely stupid, but I really didn't think any of this was that big of a deal.  I suppose it was alarming that I hadn’t been able to urinate, but they were going to fix that with a catheter and hopefully give me some better painkillers for my back.  It never crossed my mind that it could be something more seriously wrong than a herniated disc pinching some nerves in my back.

Looking back there were several things that should have given me a clue that the situation was far more serious than I thought: how quickly they took me into the ER; the worried look on the face of the nurse who emptied the nearly full 2-liter catheter bag 15 minutes after the catheter had been inserted; the speed with which the ER doctor brought in an orthopedic surgeon who wasn't even on call and in turn how quickly he called in a neurosurgeon; and the fact that they wanted MRIs of my entire spine and brain right away.  But mostly I think I should have known when they wanted to admit me but wouldn’t even venture a guess as to how long I’d have to stay.

As I type this I can't believe I didn't see it coming, but the next day when the neurosurgeon came into my room to tell me I wouldn’t be dealing with him anymore because I didn’t need surgery I thought that confirmed what I had been assuming all along: it was an orthopedic issue with my back but it wasn't so bad that it needed surgery.  I was just a big baby with a very low threshold for pain tolerance.  I must have said something along those lines to him, because he just looked at me for a minute before informing me that the new MRIs showed massive lesions on my brain and spine and it looked like multiple sclerosis.  That, I was not expecting.

*For those of you who might find yourselves at a doctor's office in Malaysia playing a rousing round of, "how much is this going to cost?": The x-rays were each around $20 USD.  The MRI of my lumbar spine without contrast was $330 USD.  I had them done at the medical clinic that caters to expats, so I’m sure these prices are inflated over the going rate at one of the local hospitals.  I think it’s safe to say that if you require imaging of some sort and happen to be in the neighborhood, Malaysia is not a bad or expensive place to have it done.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

S-21: In the shadow of the Khmer Rouge

I've been following the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia ("ECC"), often referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, for a few years now.  From a historical and legal standpoint it fascinates me.  As of late it's been politically interesting at well.  Since the ECC's first, and to date only, conviction two years ago things appear to be falling apart.  The court has had funding issues.  Cases against certain highly implicated individuals are not being pursued and judges have resigned citing pressure from the Cambodian government.  It was against this backdrop that I elected to turn our anniversary trip to Phnom Penh into a tour of various Khmer Rouge sites.  It might not be romantic, but it's something we were both interested in and off we went.

The one person who has been convicted to date is Kaing Geuk Eav, better known as Duch, the chief of S-21 prison.  Over a period of four years more than 14,000 people were sent to S-21 where they were tortured, forced to implicate others, and sign confessions.  If they survived long enough to sign a confession they were shipped off to the killing field of Choeung Ek just outside of town.  Of the 14,000 plus people who entered S-21 as prisoners, only seven lived to tell about it.

In the world before the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and began killing off urban dwellers, the educated, and anyone else considered to be at odds with the state, S-21 was a high school.  From the outside it's far easier to picture kids running down the corridors to get to class than it is to picture people being dragged in never to be heard from again.

On the inside it's a different story.  Everyone who entered was photographed and had their physical and familial details recorded.   Prison record keeping was meticulous.  Now the faces of the victims line the prison's rooms, staring out the windows as the world continues on without them.  To be honest, the seemingly endless rows of faces was a bit much for me to handle, especially when we got to the children.

We had began the day taking a tuk-tuk out to Choeung Ek and went to S-21 when we got back.  Seeing the two together on the same day certainly is easily doable and served to put everything into perspective.  However, it was also very depressing, so when you visit make sure you leave yourself time to decompress afterwards.