Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The magic of night markets

From Malaysia 2010

Night markets are very common across Asia, it seems like a cross between a state fair (where you get lots of street food), and a flea market (where you can buy almost everything). And it happens every day. And, every day, it can be different. And, given these tropical climates, once the sun sets, things get a lot cooler, and people start going outside to enjoy the cooler nighttime air.

I still remember the first night market I went to, in Taipei, as a young kid. I remember it being a really mysterious experience.. I was only in 2nd grade, brought there by an uncle who spoke only a little English (because I didn't speak any Chinese). There were all these vendors, with a bunch of toys, placed on blankets on the street, dimly lit under a few fluorescent or incandescent light bulb. Then, there are these games that you could play and win prizes, and places to get lots of snacks.

Even after all these years, night markets are still a mysterious but exciting place for me. In Malaysia, they're called pasar malam, (literally, night market), and it's a similar, but different process. Of course, there's always the food vendors there, but there's a lot more: you can buy groceries, household utensils, clothing, pirated DVDs / CD, toys. Only thing missing that they didn't have were the carnival games. And all of these vendors, literally, operate out of the back of their car. S asked if I've ever been to a pasar malam, and I thought I did, but she said the one behind her house was the best. So we went to go check it out...

From Malaysia 2010

When you arrived, it was PACKED. Imagine a few small streets, closed to traffic. The first section we walked into was full of food vendors. You could smell the cooking oil in the air, mixing with people lined up at various stalls. We saw apom (a crispy crepe, filled with peanuts and sugar), kuih (sweet and sticky desserts), fried campadak (looks like a jackfruit, but with a nuttier taste), zong zi (Chinese wrapped sticky rice dumplings).

From Malaysia 2010

From Malaysia 2010

From Malaysia 2010

While taking photos, I noticed a guy putting his hands to block photos of things each time I took them. And it wasn't even his stall!! Wasn't sure if he was trying to be annoying or what... so I just explained, with a smile, I'm just taking photos. But S, being so fast on her feet (especially in Chinese), started saying "Do you know who this is? He's a famous US photographer for a travel magazine!". This guy (who apparently was also a food vendor), was asking "which magazine?". Again, S, being much quicker on her feet, said "it's one of the biggest in the US".

Suddenly, this guy's behavior changed completely 180 degrees! He motioned for us to come towards his stall..... a motorcycle.
From Malaysia 2010

He was explaining how his stall is so famous, it was already out of food, and that I should take photos of his setup. (Note: famous has a particular meaning in Malaysia/Singapore. Once a stall becomes "famous", people suddenly become willing to wait over 30 minutes for your food, and to pay a premium. Problem is.. sometimes there are 'too many' famous places, some of which are just copycats of the original) Then he went on to explain what days he's at the PJ pasar malam, his particular speciality (cha shao, Chinese roast pork), and to come back some other time. Amazing how people sometimes will change their personality when they think somebody important is nearby. Hah... hope he doesn't read my blog. =)

From Malaysia 2010

But one of the most interesting things I saw in the pasar malam, was the ability to buy clothes and kitchen utensils. S said that I should get some socks here, but I was a bit skeptical. I remember from previous experience that night market quality was quite poor, and didn't want to be wasting my money. It was clear that the socks were from generic Chinese manufacturers, but they were really cheap, I think 5 pairs for RM10, or about US$3.50. After much stubbornness on my side, S convinced me to buy a few. And, in hindsight, they're not bad. She even mentioned how all of her socks were from the pasar malam. I guess for < $1 per pair, who would ever want to buy socks in the US?? Similarly, her sister picked up some trash baskets and pots/pans from the household things vendors. The most interesting thing about these vendors is that they literally operate out of their cars. The sock vendor had a bunch of trays, and the van was parked behind their stall. Similarly, the household utensils guy had a small minivan completely full of pots, pans, baskets, silverware, almost anything you could find in a Wal-mart. I wondered how much money it took to start a business like this? Your overhead is practically $0, your working capital is tied up in whatever you could carry in your car, and your business is completely in cash. And, if you're a night market vendor, what do you do during the day? Did they just run a shop during the day, and packed things into a car for the night markets? S mentioned that vendors will often travel to different night markets every day... what system was there to make sure there weren't too many sock vendors in one market, and not enough in another? If you're the sock vendor, what do you do if your socks go out of fashion?

In any case, night markets still provide lots of entertainment for me... you go with a bunch of friends, share snacks as you walk down the aisles of stuff, take pictures of interesting things, and have a chance to observe a culture by how they spend their evenings...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gambling and roller-coasters in Genting

From Malaysia 2010
(wonder what the Hotel Third World looks like?)

If there's one thing that Chinese people love more than eating, it's probably gambling... and dangerously so.There's always stories you hear about old Chinatowns in the US, full of gambling dens, etc. That's for a reason.. it's because Chinese people really love to gamble. And we saw lots of it in Genting.

I'd never been to Genting before, but it's in the highlands of Malaysia, about 1-2 hours outside Kuala Lumpur, and its high enough in the mountains that the air is significantly cooler than KL... so cool that S had to wear a fleece jacket, and I (being from Minnesota), just had to put a t-shirt under my short sleeve polo shirt. It's amazingly refreshing to be such cool weather when it's 90+ degrees and humid in KL. It's so cool that there's no need for air conditioning in the hotel room. (probably the only place in Malaysia where that's possible)

Strangely, Genting caters to two very different groups of people.

From Malaysia 2010
Malaysia's first roller coaster...

Group 1 - Non-Gambling
First - there's an indoor and outdoor amusement park, shopping, games, and restaurants. You'll see lots of international tourists here, it was particularly crowded with Middle Eastern tourists, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, with some Indians and Malaysians. We met a funny couple from Saudi Arabia.. the husband's name was Mohammed, it was his first time to an amusement park, and he was scared of the rides (even the simple ones, like the swing that lifts up in the air goes in circles). His wife (we didn't get her name), was completely covered in black, but had some fashionable shoes on. She was scared of EVERY ride - even the swing, or go-karting. (maybe because women don't drive in Saudi Arabia?). Somehow, Mohammed convinced her to do the rocking pirate boat ride... which she was still shell-shocked after coming off. But she was a good sport, laughing as we tried to convince them to try other rides with us.

It's funny to see the amusement park, which could be easily mistaken for any amusement park in the US. But there are some odd things... like this space shuttle that looks a lot like the US one, except it has a Malaysian flag (granted, it looks like the US flag), but it says MASA on it. Yes - I know Malaysia has had their first astronaut, but it's strange to see a Malaysian flag and "MASA" on what is actually a US spacecraft.

MASA? on the US Space Shuttle?

The other odd thing is how any of the concession stands for snacks look like something you'd find at the state fair... except all the words appear to be in English, but not understandable. Instead of seeing "cotton candy, hot dogs, and pop", you have "Powerpop, Manjoo, and Mee Goreng". The only one I recognize there is Mee Goreng = fried noodles.

Group 2: - Gamblers
HUGE gambling halls, and you'll primarily see Chinese, with some Indians and international (primarily European or Australian) visitors. One of the halls we were in was decorated in a Chinese style.. huge open room, lanterns hanging from the ceiling, huge wall murals. And it's nothing like Las Vegas...

First, there's no waitress bringing you free alcohol. You have to get your own drinks.... as long as its hot tea, water, or Milo (hot chocolate).

Second - it's amazingly QUIET. There's no ruckus from slot machines, mainly because there aren't any. People are playing card games... and VERY seriously, and very superstitiously. I sat down at a table to play Pontoon (a blackjack variant). The bet size is more my style... RM25 = $7. As soon as I put my chips down, there's a middle aged auntie next to me who takes my chips (!!) and moves them to another player's spot. I say (in Chinese) - "you can't do that!", then she starts spouting off (good thing I didn't understand everything), that she didn't want to open up another position, it would be unlucky, the cards are bad etc. After my bonus hunting experience, I know it's all statistics. I move my chips back to my spot.

Ironically, my "spot" actually becomes "hot", and she starts putting her money into my spot. So much for unluckiness of opening a new "spot". By the end of the night, I win RM 100 (about USD30). Probably the first time I've won anything ever in a casino. Good thing my blackjack training came in handy. Amazing to see how many people don't know how to play perfect strategy... and taking really bad side bets too.

We saw some very interesting people while gambling. First - there was this older man (80's probably) at our table who was literally falling asleep AT THE TABLE. The dealer had to slap his hand in front of his cards to wake him up. Probably a sign of too much gambling. Second - while playing, we kept on hearing this guy shout out "picture! picture! GOOD-BYE!" at the Baccarat tables. Then we realized he was doing it at really random times, and probably had Tourette's syndrome. I went over to investigate.. with all that shouting, you'd think he'd be playing for big stakes. Nope.. just RM10! (US$3!)

Genting was great fun.. although a bit constraining. It's a lot like Vegas - food is expensive (by Malaysian standards), but usually good, although it's satisfying to get a KFC snack after a late night of playing pontoon. You can do the rides during the day, but non-gambling entertainment is limited at night.

Oh - and the funniest part of my Genting story... We went to do this bumper boat ride, it's a bit like bumper cars, except you're on a floating raft with a small motor. As we're in line, an employee takes out a scale and ruler (like the kind you see in a doctor's office). I thought he was going to measure the kid in front of me, but he points to me and says:

"Can you please stand on the scale?"

I stand on the scale.. and it reads... 76.5 kg

"I'm sorry sir, you can't take this ride. Maximum weight is 75 kg"

I was absolutely embarrassed. I'm too heavy for this ride?! 75 kgs is nothing! (apparently he hasn't been to the US yet). There seemed to be other people in front of us who were clearly above 75 kgs, except I was the one targeted. I think S was laughing all the way back to the hotel... she totally wanted to do the ride, but I was "too heavy"

That was definitely a first.. I'm too overweight for the ride. I explained to S, once you take out my shoes, my wallet, and the two phones I'm carrying, that's probably 1 kg already. Sure enough, 1 wk later in Singapore, I weighed myself without all that stuff. 74.5 kgs. End of story.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Why breakfast is the most important meal...

There's something special about getting breakfast while traveling in Asia, especially in Malaysia or Singapore. I'm not normally a breakfast guy, nor do I normally get breakfast in the hotels (I prefer street food, as explained by this postfrom EatingAsia) , but sometimes, just sometimes, while travelling in Asia, you can find some fantastic breakfast buffets in the hotel, especially "local" ones

(although you have to be careful about not eating too much, because a combination of a overloaded stomach and hot tropical weather makes for an uncomfortable day... not to mention making you so full that you miss out on other snacking opportunities throughout the day)

While in KT, S and I stayed at the Felda Residence Hotel, which is one of the newer hotels in Kuala Terengganu, and its architecture seems to be inspired by the "Sail" Burj Dubai hotel in Dubai (but not nearly as grand). Interestingly, the Felda group is actually a Malaysian conglomerate that's better known for its palm oil plantations, but I guess they're strangely trying to diversify by going into the hotel business?)

It's one of the few times we didn't book anything in advance, and we just showed up to see what we could negotiate, as anything is negotiable in Malaysia. They had a promotion going on, RM200 per night, and it came with a free buffet breakfast!

Free breakfasts can be hit or miss, but this one... absolutely amazing. Given KT's predominant Malay population, there was a lot more Malay-influenced dishes there, such as roti jala (the lacy crepe seen in the picture), beef rendang, a chicken and fish curry, nasi lemak (my all time favorite breakfast food - coconut rice with some curry, fried peanuts and anchovies and an egg), char kway teow (another favorite), and a new dish I hadn't seen before, nasi kerabu (a blue-colored rice with small condiments, lower right corner in photo). I had to absolutely try everything on the menu!

Not only was this buffet amazing, but the next day.. they changed it all up! New dishes every day!! Including an amazing mackerel curry. Must be interesting to be the chef there, I think he/she just makes whatever he/she feels like, or whatever is fresh, which is a good philosophy for food.

There was a "western section" at this buffet, but it was pretty sad.. an omelette station, some "sausages" (really just chicken hot dogs, since Malays can't eat pork), and toast. I think everybody else was equally excited about all the curries.

Might seem strange to Americans to eat curry and rice for breakfast, but I think it should be eaten anytime! =)

S and I were really happy about the buffet, and as she put it "it was the best breakfast of the entire trip".

Monday, August 02, 2010

Relaxing, snorkeling, enjoying beaches in Pulau Redang

I'm not really a beach person.... but I had heard some amazing things about the beaches, sealife, and snorkeling in East Malaysia, so I thought I'd go see it firsthand. For our trip to Malaysia, S's sister was able to book a package for Pulau Redang, a common beach resort area, about 1 hr off the coast from Kuala Terengganu.

Most people in the US really don't know about Malaysia as a beach / snorkelling destination, but I was really surprised to see how well known it was by Australian and even European tourists! Pulau Redang is a fairly large island, and there are a number of resorts scattered across the beaches. Interestingly, each resort seems to cater to a different audience. The one that we were at had more Europeans and Chinese-Malaysians there. During one of the snorkelling runs to the marine park, we saw boats from other resorts that catered more for Malays. Very interesting...

S's sister chose the Coral Redang Resort, which was supposedly owned by one of Malaysia's sultans. A little far off from the main jetty, but there were porters to help carry (literally carry...) your bags to the hotel. It was a nice quiet place, with its own pool, beach access, and most importantly, clean rooms with cold air-conditioning. It was literally so cold - that my camera equipment would fog up the next day. Probably not the greenest thing to do....... but a nice break from the tropical heat.

During the day, there were only a few things you could do - lay on the beach, go snorkelling, take diving lesssons. Since we had heard about the amazing coral.. we went snorkelling. It was really amazing - the clearness of the water and the sheer abundance of the coral and fishes really reminded me of the first time snorkelling, in Pulau Tioman, also in Malaysia. But this place was HUGE! Unfortunately, with my vision so bad... I could only make out the large details of the corals, or the small fishes that would approach you. Unfortunately, I didn't find out until much later that there are such things as "powered" snorkel masks, that help correct your vision! Only if I had known earlier...

One of the other places we went to was a protected marine park... unfortunately, ALL of the resorts bring their people there to visit, and not too long after we arrived, it literally became a swimming pool, full of people. Some people even brought some bread to feed the fishes, with one couple literally bring a whole LOAF of bread with them. A German guy we met on the boat mentioned that this was really bad for the fish, that they'd explode after over-eating the bread. Not sure how true it was, but interesting to note...

Resorts are always interesting, because everything is somewhat "contained", including your meals. This place had a half-decent buffet every day, although nothing really special, which was a pity, because there's always so many good Malaysian dishes to eat elsewhere. One of my funniest memories is how S's family tried to cajole the chef into making barbeque lamb the next evening. Malaysians crack me up about how "forward" they can be about expressing what they want. I think it started out like this:

S's dad to staff: "I hear the kanbing (lamb) is really good, do you have it on weekends?"
Staff: "No lah, no lamb this weekend"
Dad: "Oh, but the lamb is really famous... we came all the way to this resort to have kanbing"
Staff: (looking a little indifferent... thinking why does this guy want lamb?)
Staff: "Kanbing is too expensive, have to get it from the ferry..."
Dad: "You see lah, we paid so much money for this resort, why can't you buy lamb?"

Another staff comes by..

Dad: "You're going to make sure we have kanbing tomorrow, right?"
Staff: ??

Sure enough, the next day.. we saw the staff starting up the charcoal bbq. And guess what we had? Lamb! I was personally hoping for a whole lamb roasted on a spit, but no such luck.

The other interesting thing about the resort were the European families that were staying there. We got to know an interesting German-Iranian couple (husband was German, wife was Iranian), who was bringing wife's parents/brother/sister from Iran with them. You really don't see many Iranians in the US, and with all the anti-Iranian rhetoric in the US news, you'd think they would be "scary", anti-West, etc. But the "grandmother and grandfather" were so adorable! We were playing volleyball, and they were watching from the side, so we welcomed them in, including the "grandfather". This is what I really like about Malaysians, they're really inclusive of other people, always inviting others in. After the game, we find out that the "grandfather" used to play volleyball as a child in Iran. The family had been in the resort for over 2 weeks (!! wish I had German vacations!!), and they were going back to Kuala Lumpur. They left the resort the same time as we did, and amazingly, about 1 week later, when S and I were shopping at KLCC, guess who we ran into? The husband/wife, who were shopping at Zara for their daughter! Amazing - the chances of randomly meeting the same person twice?

After a few days in Redang, I think I was ready to get "plugged in" back into a more hectic life. It's really hard for me to lounge around and do nothing.. although it was fun to snorkel, learn some photography tricks from Charles, and generally chit-chat with everybody.

On the way back, the resort had included land transfer from the jetty back to the airport. The problem was, our flight was at 9pm, but we arrived back in KT around 3pm!! And the driver of the mini-bus was prepared to take us back to the airport! So, I saw this Malaysian "bargaining" mindset take hold again. S's family was able to convince the driver to drive us all around KT to visit places (like the Crystal mosque, the market, the Batik factory, etc), and we'd pay him extra for his time, although the fuel was the "company's". Luckily, he had nothing else to do, so we was willing .As they say.. "Malaysia, boleh (possible), Everything else also can" (with money - my addition). Can you imagine that? It was hilarious... I don't think it'd ever cross my mind in the US, to try to negotiate with the bus driver to take me someplace else! I'm glad we did it though, S and I were able to see a few more sites that we missed on the original KT rounds, and we had a chance to stop by the market to go crazy eating durians (ie, the last post)

And a list of what I ate (that was memorable..):

Nasi Lemak, coffee shop inside Kuala Terengganu Airport