Friday, September 28, 2012

A second trip to Penang

The last time I was in Penang we spent most of our time at the beach in Batu Ferringhi and only popped into George Town for a couple hours to have breakfast and see Fort Cornwallis.  Aside from spending time with some really good friends, the trip wasn't anything to write home about (though I somehow managed to).  The water quality doesn't make for a great beach destination and the fort wasn't  anything spectacular.

But the food we had was great and everyone seems to love Penang.  That many people can't be wrong and giving the area another shot was a no-brainer.  So with lists of food recommendations in hand from Pauline at Simply Enak and Michele of Malaysian Meanders I headed off to Penang for a city break full of five-meal days and pure gluttony.  Can I just say George Town rocks?  The four pounds I put on in a three day period mean that it probably wouldn't be a good idea for me to ever live there but I certainly enjoyed visiting.  

It's billed as foodie heaven--the place to go if you want to eat in Malaysia.  In that respect it certainly didn't disappoint.  I did mention the weight gain, did I not?  By the end of the weekend I ran out of eating opportunities.  There were so many places I wanted to go back to and eat at again, but no time in which to do it.  I'm hoping to talk the husband into a weekend trip back to George Town in the coming months so I can get another helping of the best fried oyster I've ever had.    

But the city isn't just a plethora of amazing food options. As you wander through the streets it's easy to see why it's a UNESCO world heritage site. Around every corner lurks vibrant colors and an architectural melange that is pleasing to the eye.  It was easy to spend a day aimlessly walking through the streets with nowhere in particular to be unless we wanted to eat.

There is also plenty to do on the island that isn't eating and walking about the city, but more will come on that later.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A photo tour of Tioman Island

After writing about Tioman Island not living up to my expectations I thought I'd put up an honest photo sampling of the island so you can decide for yourself.  Enjoy!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Taking a food tour in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysian culture revolves around food.  It permeates nearly every facet of daily life.  It is something to be enjoyed, something to be socialized over, and something to be talked about afterwards.  You can’t explore Malaysian culture without delving into its food.  It's just not possible.  And yet, for an outsider really experiencing Malaysian food can be difficult.

To begin with the options appear to be limitless.  Where do you even start?  Sure, you can walk into any restaurant in town and order a Malaysian dish, but certain foods (like char kway teow) are hawker food.  To make them correctly you need a wok over a very hot open flame not commonly found in commercial kitchens, rendering most restaurant versions sub-par.   If you really want to try something new, don't you want to make sure you’re trying a good version of it?  

In my experience Malaysians are more than happy to talk to you about food and give recommendations about the best place to get any of a long list of dishes.  They’ll be happy to tell you who has been making the exact same dish to perfection day in and day out for the past ten years.  But there are thousands of hawker stalls and covered hawker centers in the Klang Valley.  Finding a specific stall without an precise address or GPS coordinates can be difficult, and good luck trying to navigate a cab driver there if you don’t know where you are going yourself.      

This is where taking a food tour becomes helpful.  If you can get a local to take you around, introduce you to local dishes and show you some of the best places to get them, all of your problems are solved. 
Recently a friend visiting from Europe and I did exactly that.  We took Simply Enak’s food tour around Petaling Street and without a doubt it is one of the best things I have done in KL since we moved here.

Queueing up for lunch at a hawker stall in KL
Pauline is fantastic at what she does.  We began the tour in a coffee shop over kaya toast and tea while she got to know us, our likes and dislikes, our level of exposure to Malaysian food, and the level of spice we could handle.  From that she formulated the day’s plan and off we went.  

We wandered through Chinatown, popping into small grocers and picking over fruit carts as we went.  Pauline is incredibly knowledgeable and explained the uses of various spices heretofore completely unknown to me while answering any questions that popped into our heads.  The tour wasn’t rigidly structured in the slightest and I got the impression that if there was anything specific we wanted to try it would be possible to do so.

I have been to Petaling Street dozens of times before this, but like most people had never looked beyond the stalls selling counterfeit goods to see what is actually there.  Pauline led us through little allies I never would have noticed on my own, through a wet market I didn’t even realize was there, and into a little street called Madras Lane where we sat and sampled from several of the vendors. 

Most of the dishes I had tried before, but this time it was completely different.  Before I’d try something having no idea what it actually was or how it was supposed to taste.  As we sat there eating Pauline explained the background of the dishes, how they are made, and what exactly they are made from.  There were also one or two dishes like Yong Tau Foo that I had eaten before and knew I liked, but didn’t know what it was called and therefore had no way of finding it to have again.  Having someone there who was unfazed by and happy to answer my incessant questioning opened up a new culinary window for me.  I will definitely be getting more out of my time here and enjoying more of the local cuisine thanks to Pauline’s guidance.

At the end of the Petaling Street Heritage Walk there is an option to add on a tea ceremony, which is basically a visit to a local tea shop where you sit with a Chinese tea expert while sampling several different types and harvests of teas.  I quite enjoy tea and found this to be fascinating, especially since my knowledge of Chinese tea is pretty lacking.  If you’re not completely against tea drinking it’s definitely worth adding on.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is Tioman Island worth visiting?

A year and a half ago I was sitting in my living room in Geneva with a coffee, map, and the internet putting together a list of places I wanted to see once we moved to Malaysia.  Tioman Island immediately made its way to the very top of that list.  Stunning pictures depicted a spectacular melange of azure waters, idyllic beaches, wild jungles, and bustling reefs.  As we got to Malaysia I couldn't wait to go see it for myself.  I went to Tioman wanting to be amazed.  I was expecting it.  But my expectations were so high that I was setting myself up for disappointment.
Storm rolling in on Tioman Island, Malaysia

It all started with the ferry.  In retrospect, we should have flown.  Tioman has the distinction of being one of Malaysia's two islands (the other being Langkawi) with an airport, so taking the ferry is entirely unnecessary. However, we added our trip out to Tioman onto a few days we were already spending in Singapore and at the time it made more sense for us to drive.

The internet told me to expect anything from 2-4 hours drive time from Singapore to Mersing, with everything depending upon how long it took to get across the border on the causeway.  We left Sing at 6:00 am on a Sunday and in doing so missed the back up at the border.  We rolled into Mersing around 8:00, picked up our tickets, and had breakfast while waiting for the 9:30 ferry.  By 11:00 we were debating on how much more time we should give them before calling it a day, packing up the car, and heading home.

Did I mention we're not very patient people?  That fact alone has caused us aggravation on many an occasion but it's hard to be patient when you dragged yourself out of bed shortly after 5:00 for the sole purpose of getting to the jetty on time for the departure of a ferry that may or may not actually show up.  When the ferry finally arrived at 11:45 we had given it until noon before we were just going to blow the whole thing off.  I slept the entire hour and forty five minutes it took us to reach the island, so the ride itself couldn't have been that bad.
Dead coral washed up on the beach on Tioman Island, Malaysia
Tioman itself looked like it had seen better days.  The island has a reputation as being a great place for diving.  There are dozens of dive sites and even a couple wrecks all in close proximity.  I don't dive so I can't speak about how it is as a dive site.  My friends who do dive assure me that it's quite good.  However, judging from the sheer amount of dead coral on the beach, I would hazard a guess that the reefs are not in the condition that they once were. 

The island itself was pretty, but if you're looking for a soft and sandy beach location this isn't it.  However, there is a lot more to this island than the beach, so if you're looking for an active holiday near the water that involves a bit of trekking it could be worth a try.  The other thing Tioman has going for it is that it's a duty free zone, which can provide welcome relief to Malaysia's otherwise hefty sin taxes.

I think that had I not been expecting so much I might have enjoyed it a lot more.  There isn't anything really terrible about it, I'm fairly certain that what I was dealing with was a case of reality not living up to my expectations.  In my opinion, it's not a bad location.  It just doesn't live up to the hype.

Monday, September 10, 2012

View from the top: Singapore by night

I like great views.  I don't like paying for them.  Therein lies the foundation of my love for rooftop bars.

Watching the sun go down over a city as the lights come on and the city comes alive (or dies, depending upon which city we're actually talking about) is absolutely beautiful, but it's a million times better if you haven't paid an exorbitant amount just for the privilege of the view.

Marina Bay Sands, the impossible to miss three-towered hotel and casino with a giant ship resting across the top has an observation deck.  Access to said observation deck costs $20 a person.

Alternatively you can go to Ku De Ta, the bar and restaurant located on the observation deck, without having to buy an entrance ticket.  Drinks there are overpriced, but you're getting the view without having to buy a ticket.  The bar tab for three of us, including a carafe of sangria and a beer was $56.  Overpriced?  Sure.  But that's $4 less than it would have cost us to get to the observation deck sans alcohol and we were able to enjoy a drink and the view at the same time.  The better deal on this one seems like a no-brainer.

And the view isn't half-bad either.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The new Istana Negara

Istana Negara is the national palace (which is exactly what it means in Bahasa).  I sometimes surprise myself with the amount of the language I've picked up despite not making any systematic and concerted effort to do so.  Since I can see the palace from my bathroom windows this post could also be titled "visiting the neighbors".  The ability to see someone's house from the comfort of your bathtub definitely makes them your neighbor.

The king is far newer to the neighborhood than I am.  For the entire history of an independent Malaysia, the palace was located in the city on Jalan Istana.  That all changed last year when the king's official residence was moved out to the suburbs nearly a month before the new king's installation.

For my non-Malaysian readers, the installation of a new king isn't as big of a deal as it sounds.  It happens every five years so if you miss if it all you need to do is wait a while and it will be happening again.  The Malaysian Constitution requires that the King be a Muslim male from one of the country's royal lines (of which there are nine).  Twice a decade the nine Sultans get together elect a new king from amongst themselves.  The current new king is the Sultan of Kedah, who has already been the king once as a young man, making him the first king in Malaysian history to hold the position twice.  

Now that the palace has moved, I'm not sure it's such a great stop for a tourist exploring the city.  With all due respect to my neighborhood, it can be difficult to get to as traffic between it and the city is never a given.  Getting there requires a car, taxi, or a bus.  Wheeled transportation is a must because the only way to get to the front of the palace is via the specially created entrance and exit ramps off of Jalan Duta.  

If your time in the city is limited, the amount of time you'll spend getting to the palace will make you resent the little bit of time you'll spend actually looking at it.  The palace isn't open to the public so a visit just involves seeing the palace on the hill and the guards out front.  If you're really not that interested in watching military guards the entire stop won't take you more than five minutes.  However,  if you happen to be in the area anyway and are looking for something to do, it is worth stopping by for the novelty factor.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The time I spent a week in a Malaysian hospital

It's been almost a month since I posted the first half of this story (which can be found here).  I've waited so long to finish it partially because I’m trying to live my life as normally as possible, which for me means not dwelling on what has happened, but also because certain parts of my hospital stay still anger me to think about so I try to refrain from doing so whenever possible.  

For the record: my overall experience with the hospital was fine.  The rooms were nice, the nurses were attentive, and there was nothing about the hospital itself that would lead me to believe I wouldn’t get the very best care.  So why, then, did I high tail it back to the US as fast as I was medically able to get on a plane? 

The answer to that has to do with the neurologist who was taking care of my case (we shall call him Dr. N: for neurologist or nincompoop, take your pick).  I know that neurologists tend not to have the greatest bedside manner, but my problems with him went far beyond that which is typical for someone interested enough in the nervous system to have dedicated their life to it.  It might have been a cultural issue, but the two surgeons I had seen prior to meeting Dr. N didn't seem to have the same issues at all, so it's just as likely that it was all just a problem with this one particular doctor.

What was so bad that I got myself discharged and left?

He wouldn't talk to me. 

[If you haven't read the first half of this saga, allow me to set the stage: I had just been admitted to the hospital in KL while my husband was in Europe on business.  He was supposed to be there another two weeks, and a week from the day I went into the hospital I was supposed to meet him in Prague for a friend's wedding.  Even though my husband wasn't there I had friends coming and going at almost all hours.  I wasn't really ever alone.] 

I first met Dr. N when he entered my room and asked not how I was feeling but whether I was married and where my husband was.  I asked for anti-naseua medication because I had been vomiting and he asked if I was bulimic.  This was the bedrock upon which our doctor/patient relationship was formed.

[What I didn't know then is that vomiting is a pretty common occurrence with an attack of a specific MS mimicking disease.  Since I was there with symptoms attributable to MS, if he was worth his salt he'd have tested for the presence of the antibody associated with the mimicking disease instead of assuming I had done it to myself and telling me he didn't know why I'd be vomiting if it wasn't self-induced].

It was the neurosurgeon who had been called into see me in the ER who told me that I had lesions on my brain and spine and about the possibility of MS.  Had he not mentioned it when he came to tell me he was handing me off as a patient I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on.  Dr. N refused to talk to me about anything.  I asked questions and he wouldn't answer them.  I'm not talking about the completely understandable, "at this point we don't know for sure what's wrong with you and we can't make predications as to the future but we're doing our best and will hopefully have some answers for you soon" response.  That would have been fine.

Instead it was, "I am not going to answer that because I don't want to upset you.  I'll wait until your husband gets here."  This gave birth to a week of no information.  The husband was in Europe and I wasn't about to tell him to come home on the word of a chauvinist when I didn't know 1) how serious my situation was 2) how long I would be in the hospital and 3) whether or not I would recover in time to make my flight to Prague.  He wouldn't give me that information without my husband present and I wasn't about to make the decision to tell him to cut his trip short and come home without it.  We were at an impasse.

When I say that I was given no information I mean it in the most literal sense.  He started me on a really high dose of steroids and I didn't know about it for two days.  I asked three separate nurses what is was that they were putting in my IV and got three separate answers, none of which was steroids.  Where Dr. N wouldn't talk to me about my condition he was more than happy to discuss any of my medical issues via the telephone with my husband.  The only way to get information from him was to give my husband a question I wanted answered, put him on the phone, and hand the phone to Dr. N.  I was getting increasingly frustrated and upset and had I been capable of walking I would have been out the front door as fast as my legs could carry me.  

When we finally decided that J really should come home he was able to run interference between the doctor and myself, and in the process ended up more upset with Dr. N than I already was.  Once the communication issue was cleared up it became apparent that the doctor was so convinced I had MS that he had ruled out all other possibilities by his own sheer willpower.  He wasn't testing for a lot of the diseases that can mimic MS [you can't really diagnose MS without first ruling out the mimics].  He had just decided that I didn’t have them.  From that point the decision was made pretty quickly that I’d go back to the US as soon as I could fly.  

Why did I run?  Even if (as I am more than happy to accept) it were just this one doctor and not a wider cultural phenomena, I wouldn't have known how to go about getting a referral to another doctor without asking Dr. N.  And if I did, I had no guarantee that I wouldn't encounter the same problem with the new doctor.  I was at the end of my rope.  I was sick of being talked over, of being treated as if my concerns weren't valid and my questions weren't worth answering.  I was done being treated as if I wasn't competent to make decisions regarding my own health because I was a married female.  So I ran.  I ran to the system I am comfortable with.  I ran to the place where I know what my rights are and that I wouldn’t have a problem of this nature.  I wasn’t really getting better, and if I needed to start some sort of treatment I didn’t want it to be at the hands of a doctor who didn’t come across as if he knew what he was talking about and was going to want permission from my husband.