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End of summer update (well it’s always summer here)

August 27, 2012

Selamat Pagi!

I know it’s been a while since we last spoke and as usual a lot has been going on. This is going to be a long update so I’ve decided to break it up into sections. That way you can read it piecemeal if you don’t have the four hours of uninterrupted time to go through it all.

For the sake of simplicity I’ll go in chronological order. When we last left off, I had recently returned from Krakatoa and managed to not get engulfed in a volcanic eruption. I am happy to report that I am still very much not engulfed in flames. About two weeks after Krakatoa I went with my aunt Anni and her friends the Di Silvestros to a resort town on the east coast of Malaysia called Tanjong Jara. It is here that our story begins…

Tanjong Jara

We’ll start with the planning phase. Anni’s friends Roseanne and Brain and their two kids Sara and Jason decided to come to Malaysia for a two week visit. Anni wanted to take them to one of the nice resort towns for a weekend and asked if I’d like to go too. The resort she had in mind is named Tanjong Jara and is owned by YTL, the huge Malaysian conglomerate that I consult for. We were looking at the website for the YTL resorts to get a feel for the various locations they have. Their website is very nice, very classy and plays this calm soothing music that every couple of minutes has somebody sing “Y   T   LLLLLL”. At first we didn’t notice it but after the second or third time through the song we both kind of stopped and looked at each other and went “Did they just sing the company name?” For those of you interested, here is the link to their website.

http://www.ytlhotels.com/

Anyways, the Di Silverstro’s came into town. This was the first time I had met them and they are very nice and fun people to be around. We had a great dinner at one of the best Indian restaurants in KL before leaving to go to Tanjong Jara in the morning. It was a four hour drive to get there but well worth it.When we arrived we were greeted by this creepy guy with a gong.

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After arriving and checking into our rooms we met up on one of the lawns for a “traditional Malaysian culture event”. I’m not really sure what it was supposed to be, it was more like a small potluck with some people doing the equivalent of jump rope but instead of a rope they were using large bamboo like branches. What really stood out though was that they had a trained monkey who would climb up the coconut trees and knock ripe coconuts off that would then be cut open and made into coconut milk drinks for anyone that wanted one. Yet another reason why everyone should have a monkey.

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On our next day in TJ (Tanjong Jara, not Tijuana) we went jungle trekking. For this part of the story there is a special guest columnist, Anni herself, to talk about the ensuing adventure.

Beaches and Leeches and Scares, Oh My! 

TJ (http://www.tanjongjararesort.com) is a beautiful haven situated on the eastern edge of Malaysia, along the mighty and green South China Sea. Imagine a South-East-Asian-architected compound with lots of light, few walls, cross ventilation, lush grounds, and the ubiquitous sound of the sea.  Dotted along the broad expanse of beach are little pavilions and umbrellas that help reinforce relaxation and provide shelter from the sun.  Pools.  Spas. Open air restaurants. Really lovely accommodation.  And drinks.  Lovely drinks. The kind with ginger, and lime, and something “medicinal”, and clinking ice. You know, grown-up drinks.

One day, from these flat environs, we headed inland and upward to Taman Negara (the National Forest, or literally, “Garden National”) and Chemerong, the tallest waterfall in Malaysia.  It’s an ambitious four-kilometer trek to the top; we only went half way.  After scampering over huge trees and trails, we settled at a beautiful outcropping with the main body of the Falls above, cooling pools ahead, and, off to our right, a chute to carry a mass of  H20 toward that South China Sea.

I now know that heaven is ditching soggy socks for a good foot soak in refreshing water after what feels like a purely vertical climb.  We are at the Equator remember, so sweat and humidity combine to make you soggier than you’d ever believe possible.

After providing lunch, our guide also escorted my friends’ kids, Sara and Jason, a bit upstream to try a soak in the natural Jacuzzi where the tumbling water hits a flat pan of rock. Both kids came back with big smiles.  And leeches.  These were tiny little crittters — and easily dealt with upon discovery.  (We just had to track where the blood was coming from!) 

We also had a slight scare when Sara somehow slipped toward the chute and the many-meters fall to a lower elevation.  This was rather…um…how shall I word this?…terrifying!  But she stayed calm and relaxed, and she worked with us to help her get fished out before she, too, cascaded downward toward that South China Sea.

Eventually the “rain” part of the “rainforest” came in, and for more than a hour we tramped downward through slick mud and jungle fauna, retracing the track of fallen trees and ambiguously disappearing trails.  And guess what?  The sweat and humidity from the first half of our day was nothing compared to the pelting, relentless, monsoon-ular shower we experienced on the way down. [Interestingly enough, we met with a number of Muslim Malaysian college students making their way upward.  For a Westerner such as I, the image of many hijab-ed (head covered) young women walking in the forest during a rainstorm with hiking boots and walking sticks was rather unexpected.  But wonderfully so.]

Upon our return to TJ, cooling—and “medicinal”—aperitifs were consumed. All in all, an active, beautiful, and memory-filled—albeit soggy–day of fun.

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Our last day we split up into two groups. Anni and Roseanne decided to stay in the resort and go get spa treatments while the rest of us went out snorkeling/scuba diving. To do this we needed to take a boat out to some of the islands off the coast of Malaysia. When we got to the dock I saw this nice looking yacht and said “Awesome we get to take the yacht!” The dive master laughed and said “Yeah right. We’re taking the dive boat next to the yacht.” Oh well, can’t fault a guy for trying. We all piled into the dive boat and headed out to the islands.

Now as we were leaving the bay the boat crew was constantly trying to start one of the two engines. They were having trouble with it the day before and thought that they had fixed it. Apparently not. After about ten minutes of going at half power, they got fed up and decided to head back to the pier to change to the other dive boat that had both engines working. We all hopped out of the boat and waited for them to get the other dive boat ready. After about ten minutes of them talking and making numerous phone calls, the dive master came up to us and said “Well the other dive boat is dry docked and we can’t reach the guy who owns it to get it into the water (I think he was still asleep or hungover from the night before). So guess what. We’re taking the yacht after all.” So we got to take the yacht instead of a dive boat. That’s a pleasant upgrade. Oh and the yacht was also owned by YTL.

While the Di Silvestro’s and a few other people on the boat went snorkeling, I went scuba diving along with two other people. The first dive was nice but nothing too eventful other than seeing a huge four or five foot long humphead parrotfish (which was really ugly). The second dive introduced me to a new kind of diving known as “drift diving”. This is also known as “current diving” where you follow a strong current and just let it take you. This was not a soft and gentle current. If you swam against it with fins the best you could hope for would be to stay still. It was powerful enough that you couldn’t go forward in the opposite direction. You just had to let it take you and enjoy the ride which is actually pretty neat once you realize you probably won’t be pushed headfirst into a wall.

We followed the current along a long coral reef as well as ducking in and out of other reef structures, sometimes being in a current-less environment and sometimes the current would seem to appear out of nowhere. Drifting is kind of like looking out the window of a plane at the ground below. There are a lot of neat things to see but you’re going forward and really don’t have any control over it (well unless you’re the pilot). It ended up being a really fun dive but definitely took a little while to get used to.

After returning to the hotel, we meet up with Anni and Roseanne and began the long journey back to Kuala Lumpur. The van we were in had a DVD player and it was decided that we would watch The Sound of Music. It’s been over a month and a half since then and I still have the songs stuck in my head.

Ramadan

As some of you may know, this past month has been the month of Ramadan in Muslim culture. During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset. And yes, this includes water. It’s been interesting being in a Muslim country during Ramadan as you have to be conscious of simple things such as asking people if they want anything to drink during a meeting or how you handle lunch. It’s generally considered rude to eat or drink in front of people who are fasting for Ramadan.

There are a couple of interesting side effects of the fasting period. Every evening at 7:30 it is considered “sundown” so everyone is allowed to eat again. If you go into restaurants before 7:30 they’d often ask you if you wanted your food delivered at 7:30. This way you can go in, order and have it ready to eat exactly at sunset. Generally everyone tries to have food in front of them at 7:30 exactly. This leads to another interesting side effect, insane traffic between the hours of 5 and 7 as everyone tries to get home, cook, and be ready to eat at 7:30 on the dot. It also means that around 7:15 or so until 8:30, there is almost no traffic on the road as most people are already in-doors for dinner.

You learn to plan around this traffic otherwise you get stuck in awful jams. At the beginning of Ramadan I made the mistake of taking a cab at 6 PM to go home. The traffic was so bad that at one point the cab driver reclined his chair to take a nap. After that I planned to walk or take the train whenever traveling between 6 and 7.

Ramadan ended this past weekend and to celebrate there is a holiday known as Hari Raya. This gave us a four day weekend. Naturally I used it to flee the country which brings me to my most recent adventure…

Phuket

I’ve spent four days last week on the island of Phuket in Thailand. Some of you may know this island as a hotbed for tourists. There are lots of great beaches, places to see, and lots and lots and lots of people trying to sell you suits, tuk tuk cab rides, and massages.

One of the first things I did when arriving in Phuket was look for something that I cannot get in Malaysia. Real pepperoni pizza. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, almost all of the food is Halal meaning there is no pork. I’m not a big pork person but you start missing it when you realize that it is one of the vital ingredients on pizza. While out in Thailand I made sure to enjoy the foods I couldn’t easily get in Malaysia such as pepperoni pizza, pork ribs, and of course real bacon. I do find it interesting that I spent a Muslim holiday celebrating by eating food that is not allowed in Islam. Life’s funny that way.

Of course that’s not all I did in Phuket. I did a scuba diving trip on Sunday and an island hopping canoeing trip on Monday. We’ll start with the scuba trip.

We went diving off an island known as Racha Yai off the southern coast of Phuket. During the first dive, the dive master showed me around a few of these interesting concrete square frames, saw some interesting fish but overall it didn’t seem that interesting. Then he pulled out a couple of bananas he had brought with him. He took a handful of banana, squashed it up, then released it into the water. Fish came out of nowhere to swarm all over and eat the banana pieces. He passed me one as well and I did the same as you can see in the video if I figure out how to upload it…

For the second dive we went to a shipwreck. I had never been to a shipwreck so it was neat going around and inside of it. Often times they will sink old ships to let coral form on them creating habitats for sea life to grow in. The dive master didn’t say whether this was an intentionally sunk ship or not so I am just going to assume it was Johnny Depp led pirates that sank the ship. I think that’s probably a safe assumption.

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On Monday I went to tour the Phang Nga Bay off the Northeast side of Phuket. We would stop at an island, get off and take ocean canoes to tour with.

At the first island we went inside a cave known as “Bat Cave”. You can probably figure out why it is named that, and no it does not have anything to do with Batman. There were about five or six other boats at the cave then so a ton of people were on canoes going in and out of the cave. It was like being on the pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland but without as much singing. My canoe guide kept playing bumper canoes with the other guides he knew which was pretty funny.

The next island we stopped at is known as James Bond Island because they filmed part of The Man with the Golden Gun there. This island is famous for one of the rock outcroppings in the water as you can see in the picture below. I was actually disappointed in this island. It had great views but was really crowded, covered in stalls of people trying to sell stuff (sadly none of which was James Bond related), and there were really loud boats constantly taxiing people in from the tour ships. Oh well, I can at least say I’ve been there.

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In the other islands we would travel around lagoons or sometimes into other caves. Some of the caves were so small at the entrance that you actually had to lay down in the canoe in order to get through. All of the caves are pitch black so you can only see by flashlight or camera flashes.

Our last stop was to the first island we visited but on the other side. The canoe guides were waiting in the water for us as usual so everyone got in line to get off the boat. A few of us decided to spice things up by taking the “express exit” off the boat. Also known as jumping off the boat from the second story and swimming to our canoes. I stand by that decision.

This side of the island had a cave where we actually beached the canoes and traveled in on foot. As we were walking through the cave, my guide stops me and points to the ground in front of me. There was a six or seven foot chasm in the ground leading to an underground stream and no way to get walk along the edges of it. I asked him if we’d have to jump over it Indian Jones style and he laughed then pointed to a side passage where we basically crawled to get through. At the end of this cave it opened up into a lagoon in the middle of the island. It was interesting trekking through the dark cave to come to this peaceful lagoon. I wouldn’t build a vacation home or anything in there, but it was a fitting end to the day of exploring the islands.

Thailand versus Tax Returns

Now some of you are going through the September and October 15th busy seasons for filing extended tax returns right now. I thought it might be useful to build a pro’s and con’s list of going to Thailand as compared to working on tax returns.

Going to Thailand

Pro’s

  • Can lay out on the beach or pool deck with a Mai Tai
  • Get to go scuba diving
  • Get to explore new islands
  • Can get cheap suits and massages and other items generally much cheaper

Con’s

  • Constantly hear about how you can get cheap suits and massages
  • Very hot and humid (this can be a pro or a con depending on the person)
  • Live bands of varying skill levels

Work on Tax Returns

Pro’s

  • Not likely to get sunburned
  • Get paid to help people with complicated material
  • End of busy season parties

Con’s

  • It is frowned upon to work on tax returns with a Mai Tai
  • Can’t go to one of those fish spa’s where the fish nibble on your feet
  • People think you are weird if you send them postcards talking about working on tax returns

Next Stop

Ok that is it for this installment. My next planned trip is Shanghai for a weekend in September where I’ll get to meet up with my stepmom. I’m looking forward to it and hope I don’t get Shanghai’d.

-Chris

Quotes

“Go straight then take a right then take another right” – Several sources

“It’s delicious. It’s made from formaldehyde.” – My stepdad talking about some drink they make in Vietnam

“I have a small acrobatic troupe that wants to perform in China. What type of visa do I need to apply for?” – This is from the Frequently Asked Questions section about applying for a Chinese visa from Malaysia

“I’m supposed to be an American Rapper slash Cowboy slash Cautionary Tale.” – Taco from The League talking about his role on a foreign soap opera

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