Thursday, May 31, 2007


I first heard about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Malaysian Borneo, from an episode of the television program “Globe Trekker,” a British production in which affable hosts journey to exotic locations. They show is geared toward adventurous travelers, the ones with backpacks who don’t mind public transportation and a little dirt on their dungarees. (i.e., budget) travelers. The episode included a trip to Sepilok and the host, serious Justine Shapiro, was treated to a one-on-one encounter with a young orangutan. As part of the paying public, my visit was much less personal and ultimately disappointing.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

At one time, visitors to the center were allowed to interact with the orangutans. With outbreaks of SARS and the Asian Bird Flu in recent years, the apes and humans are kept apart; visitors can now only observe the apes from a short distance during twice-daily feedings.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is a stop on the tour bus circuit. You’ll know you’ve reached a tour bus destination when large groups of people are speaking the same language and are wearing clean, light-colored clothes. Also look out for a lot of sandals and compact cameras.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with tours (I spent a few weeks in Australia as part of organized tours and found it an affordable and convenient way to see the country. I even considered joining a tour of Borneo, but opted to remain independent). There are few surprises, delays or “what the?” moments. But there is also a lower probability of leaving the crowds behind, of discovering that you’ve arrived in somewhere outside your comfort zone, that time and place that makes the challenges of independent travel rewarding.

In my last post, I wrote about my visit to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. There were about a dozen visitors at the morning feeding, certainly more monkeys than humans. Why are people passing up the proboscis monkeys and traveling in droves to see the orangutans? Proboscis monkeys aren’t as sexy as orangutans, nor as popular in the imagination. The proboscis sanctuary is also difficult to get to – 15 kilometers on an unpaved road – and there is no public transportation to the front door. Lastly, the entrance fee is twice that of the orangutan center. The bottom line, however, is that orangutans are popular creatures, gentle, endearing and easy to love. So I was not surprised to find tour buses and a crowd of more than 100 people at the orangutan center.

The morning feeding delivered exactly what it promised: orangutans, up-close and personal. About half a dozen creatures showed up to munch on bananas. They used hands and feet to traverse a rope to a feeding platform; they climbed pillars; they scowled, screeched, hooted and bared their teeth. One young ape hung from the rope, bucking up and down before launching himself into the foliage below. This last bit of apery elicited a great roar of approval from the crowd. The show lasted about 15 minutes before the apes withdrew into the forest.

So why did I feel the visit was a disappointment? Was it the sideshow atmosphere? The sight of intelligent and interesting animals on display? Did I expect something more personal, more serene or less orchestrated? It was a little of everything. I’m glad I went, elated that I got to see orangutans from a few feet away; I just wish it had been less of a circus and more of an education.

The orangutans were fascinating, however, and deserve a few photos. Enjoy!

What Are You Lookin' At?

Hanging Around

Old Lady Orangutan

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Monkey Eat, Monkey Do

My second piece for Tripmaster Monkey ("Home of Yellow Journalism") went live this week. It is a short version of my culinary tour of Singapore. If you've been reading Packmonkey you know I went overboard on the food. What can I say? I get excited sometimes by new flavors. Click through if you care to revisit chili crab, chicken rice, grilled stingray and the deliciousness known as fish head curry.

Previous: Indonesia

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Monkeys and Mayhem

Before I hit the road, Borneo was a mystery to me. Is it a country? An island? Are there cannibals? Is it safe? Is it even possible to visit? Well, no, yes, maybe, most of the time and definitely.

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, is not a country in and of itself. Indonesia and Malaysia share most of the real estate. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak cover the northern third of the island; the Indonesian state of Kalimantan covers the south. The tiny sultanate of Brunei has carved out of a sliver of land on the north coast roughly between Sabah and Sarawak. The name Borneo was applied by the Dutch during a period of colonization and it has stuck in Western minds.

I came to Sabah to climb Mount Kinabalu, the third-tallest mountain in Southeast Asia (13,435 feet). The parks department regulates the number of climbers who can be on the mountain at any one time, requiring climbers to reserve space in advance. I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants traveler these days and didn't make arrangements before arriving in the city of Kota Kinabalu. Still, I was able to secure a spot on the mountain next weekend. That left me with six days to fill.

Tourists come to Sabah to climb the mountain or to see wildlife, both on land and below the sea. Probably the most famous inhabitants of the animal kingdom are the orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, 25 kilometers outside the town of Sandakan, which for me was a winding seven-hour bus ride from KK (the return trip will be by airplane). The orangutans are a must-see for me, but they will occupy one morning. A little research turned up another interesting monkey species, the Proboscis.

The Proboscis monkey is a an endangered species. There are only about 7,000 of them in the world and only in Borneo. As the name suggests, the monkey is distinguished by its huge schnozz. Actually, only the males have big noses. The females have dainty, pointy noses. I'm unable to decide if the creatures have unique features worthy of admiration or if they are just plain ugly. Buddy Ebsen and Mr. Magoo come to mind.

The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary outside of Sandakan is not an easy place to get to. A visit would require either an overnight stay at an overpriced lodge in the jungle or an expensive taxi ride from the city. I settled on something in between -- I hired a driver for the day. We would visit the proboscis monkeys and then a memorial to a tragic chapter in world history.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Sonny, a local with little space in his brain for anything other than women, was living at the same waterfront hostel I'd booked into. We set out in the morning for the 90-minute trip. After 19 miles of paved highway, we turned onto a dirt road for a rough 15-kilometer ride into the jungle.

We arrived at the sanctuary about 45 minutes before the morning feeding. I killed the time watching a documentary about the monkeys, learning about their characteristics and behavior. Proboscis monkeys live in small groups, either based on a dominant male with a harem of females and offspring, or a bachelor group of young males who would vie for the females' attention. The

What makes this fairly common group dynamic interesting -- and if you don't find this interesting, get your head checked -- is that the size of the dominant male's nose plays some part in the attractiveness of that male monkey. The girls like the big beaks. The bigger than better.

Dominant Male

What's more, the dominant male's purpose in life, other than defending his territory (and females) is producing as many offspring as possible. To this end, the dominant male sports a constant erection, a red tower of power out there in front for all to see. This state of constant arousal is even depicted in a painting at the sanctuary. Check out that photo above one more time. Click on it to go to Flickr, then click on "All Sizes." You'll see clear evidence of his dominant stature

The proboscis monkeys in Sabah acted much like other monkeys -- fighting for scraps, leaping from trees, tumbling in the foliage and squawking and screeching at regular intervals. The addition of that fantastic nose meant I couldn't take my eyes off of them.

I also saw silver-leaf langurs, mudskippers and a few hornbills. None of them could compete with the proboscis monkeys.

Silver-Leaf Langur

On the way back to Sandakan, Sonny and I stopped at Sandakan Memorial Park. I realized when I read about the park that one of the unexpected themes to emerge in my travels is the Japanese presence in the south Pacific during World War II. It started when I was in Darwin, Australia, where I read about the sinking of an American warship by Japanese bombers. During a visit to a Buddhist temple in Singapore, I heard about the occupation of the city by Japanese forces. Somewhere in the back of my brain I knew Borneo played a part in the war. I just never knew how awful it was.

The Japanese occupied Borneo in 1941, and soon thereafter created a few camps for prisoners of war. In Sandakan, Australian and British prisoners were forced to build an airstrip. The conditions were acceptable at the beginning, as acceptable as an prison camp could be, I assume. But as the war progressed, conditions worsened and the treatment of the prisoners turned brutal. With the Allies on the offensive in 1945, the Japanese marched their prisoners 250 kilometers through the jungle. Of the 2,400 prisoners interred at the Sandakan camp, only six survived, and only those because they escaped.

Entrance to Sandakan Memorial Park

Sandakan Memorial Park is situated in a quiet grove off the main road. There is a small exhibition hall with a model of the camp and a series of panels explaining the history of the camp as well as others with heartbreaking quotes from survivors. It is a wrenching tale of cruelty and survival.

I took a short walk through the shady grounds after visiting the center, wondering how those terrible acts could have happened on this peaceful plot of land.

Plaque Detail Depicting POW on a Death March

The route from Sandakan to Ranau has been turned into a hiking trail. Tackling this trek may bring me back to Borneo someday.

I visit the orangutans tomorrow morning. I will then spend the next two nights in a jungle camp -- huts and mosquito nets, watch out for the crocodiles in the water -- next to the Kinabatangan River. I hope to see pygmy elephants and smell a rafflesia flower while I'm there.

I return to Kota Kinabalu on Friday night and will do my best to post an update before heading up the mountain.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cave Man

Anyone who watches the reality television extravaganza "The Amazing Race" would recognize one of Kuala Lumpur's most famous attractions, the Batu Caves. "The Amazing Race" is a scavenger hunt/endurance contest in which teams of two travel around the world in pursuit of a million dollars in cold hard cash. Fans watch the show for the scenery, sure, but most of the fun comes from watching couples, friends, siblings and partners squabble with one another while scheming how to screw over the other teams. It's really all about rivalries and bitchiness.

In the latest season of the great race, "Amazing Race All-Stars" -- which I was unable to watch but followed through updates from friends and the Internet -- the 'round-the-world sprint took racers to Kuala Lumpur and to the Batu Caves. The caves are accessible via a very steep staircase comprised of 272 steps. The contestants, I assume, were captured in all their sweaty, panting glory as they raced to the top of the staircase to receive instructions about their next task or destination.

Halfway to the Caves

The Batu Caves are more than just a scenic location for American television. However, knowing I was covering the same ground as the Beauty Queens, the Midget and Team Cha-Cha-Cha made the excursion more special.

The Batu Caves are a series of caverns in a limestone hillside seven miles north of the city. The caves were discovered, legend has it, by an Indian trader sometime in the 1800s. They were made famous after an American naturalist re-discovered them in 1878. In the late 1800's the first Hindu temple was built inside the largest cavern. Today, there are numerous temples and shrines. The largest and most famous cavern, called Temple Cavern, is open the public and accessible via the aforementioned 272 steps.

Temple Cavern

The interior of Temple Cavern is impressive, with a 100-meter-tall vaulted ceiling and numerous holes letting in light. Still, there is a dankness, a fetid atmosphere with hints of an open sewer, that turned me off as soon as I stepped inside. Nevertheless, the temples and shrines, and the Hindus worshiping there, were enough to take my mind off the stench and keep me interested.

Another series of caverns open to the public is called The Art Gallery. These caverns are lined with paintings and statues depicting Hindu deities. When I visited, there were hundreds of people in Temple Cavern and only a handful in the Art Gallery. Those visitors who passed up this smaller cavern missed out on a psychedelic experience. A multitude of gods is depicted in vivid colors; it's as if Disney's "It's a Small World" had been transported to South Asia, the cute citizens of the world replaced by multi-headed snakes and blue-skinned Krishnas. There are multiple monkey-faced Hanumans and Ganesha the Elephant sits regally at the entrance to the gallery.

Hanuman, the Monkey God

Shiva? Vishnu? Can Anyone Tell Me?

I think the Batu Caves are a worthwhile destination for anyone traveling to Kuala Lumpur. I enjoyed the temples and the artwork, and the caves themselves are an impressive natural phenomenon. But what I will take away from my visit is the number of people who seemed like they were going to expire while climbing those 272 steps.

I walk a lot, especially when I'm in a new city. Sometimes I'll wander for 6 or 8 hours in a day, seeing where my feet take me and stopping when something catches my eye or I get tired, hungry or thirsty. I assume I'm in some kind of shape, my cardiovascular system attuned to the rigors of travel. Also, after about eight weeks in the tropics, I hardly notice the heat and humidity.

I'd heard about the 272 steps and thought it would be a challenge to ascend to the temples. Yet when I reached the top, I was barely winded. Meanwhile, I'd passed a number of people, young and old, clearly suffering from overexertion. Some, I knew from the red and white numbers painted on the staircase, had to rest before reaching 100. One man, he couldn't have been more than 30, lay on the ground, his chest heaving while a friend fanned his brow -- for what it's worth, I think he was putting on a show.

Suck It Up, Dude.

I'm in Malaysian Borneo now, in the state of Sabah. I'll be visiting some real monkeys this week, orangutans and proboscis monkeys to be exact. Next weekend I climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Then we'll see how tough I really am. Stay tuned.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Joy Juice Deconstructed

Sometimes when I'm browsing in a grocery store (or a 7-Eleven even) I stumble on a product that stops me in my tracks. It can be something utterly unappealing (see: Sweet Corn Ice Cream), a product so mysterious I'm unable to begin to guess what it is, or, as was the case today, something that brings a huge smile to my face.

I was checking out the selection of cold drinks at the Japanese superstore Isetan this afternoon. What I really wanted was a can of soursop juice, but when I saw the words "Kickapoo Joy Juice" I knew I'd found something special. The can even said it was "The Original Joy Juice Recipe." I didn't know there was more than one.

I had to try it. How bad could something called "Joy Juice" be? I know, it could have been truly terrible, a blend of unknown ingredients aimed squarely at the Asian palette.

The Original Joy Juice Recipe

As you can see from this photo, Kickapoo Joy Juice is the color of radiator fluid. It is a carbonated citrus drink that contains a hint of ginger. It's sweet and syrupy, but I was quite happy to drink the whole can.

Where did this beverage come from? And why is it called "Joy Juice"? A quick Google search provided some answers. (What did we do in the days before Google?)

Kickapoo Joy Juice is manufactured by the Monarch Beverage Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The drink is only distributed in Malaysia, Brunei and Bangladesh -- talk about niche marketing!

I dug a little deeper and found a connection to American cultural history. In the comic strip world of Dogpatch, home of Al Capp's "Li'l Abner," there was a concoction called "Kickapoo Joy Juice," a "liquor of such stupefying potency that the hardiest citizens of Dogpatch, after the first burning sip, rose into the air, stiff as frozen codfish."

It gets even better. Another search revealed that Capp probably based Kickapoo Joy Juice on a nineteenth century patent medicine called "Kickapoo Indian Sagwa," the product of a snake oil manufacturer Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company of Connecticut. According to, the concoction was a mixture of "Soda Bicarb, Gentian Root, Mandrake Root, Cubebs Rubarb Root, Senna Leaves, Aniseed Red Cinchona Bark, Yellow Dock Root Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, Sacred Bark, Licorice Root, Aloes, Alcohol Glycerine, and Water." Mmmm.... alcohol glycerine.

That's a long way from the ingredients of "Kickapoo Joy Juice," which, according to, are "carbonated water, sugar, permitted food conditioners, flavoring, perrservative and color (tartrazine)." Mmmmm.... tartrazine.

What a long strange journey! Who knew a can of soda could bring so much joy?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bigger Is Better

I like skyscrapers, the taller the better. The Empire State Building is the grandest of them all, in my opinion. It stood as the tallest in the world for more than 40 years, an astonishing reign. The boxy Twin Towers were ugly as sin but I found comfort in their straight lines and powerful presence. Standing between the towers and looking up was an unparalleled New York experience. The Chrysler Building is as beautiful as any work of art ever created.

I hope to visit all the world's tallest structures in my lifetime, both the skyscrapers and the towers. So it follows that my visit to Kuala Lumpur would include the Petronas Towers (1,483 feet), the world's second-tallest building, and the Menara KL (1,381 feet), the fifth tallest tower on the planet.

I've wanted to visit the Petronas Towers since they were completed in the late 1990s. Like the World Trade Center, it is a complex with twin towers rising into the sky. Unlike the World Trade Center, the Petronas Towers are gorgeous. César Pelli, an Argentinian architect, based the design on Muslim motifs, lending its surface a patterned complexity that is utterly modern while retaining very traditional elements. I don't know anyone who doesn't agree that the Petronas Towers are pleasing to the eye.

I have yet to enter the towers themselves (only limited access is granted to the footbridge between the towers every day), but I spent a very pleasant evening photographing them. Taking photos is easy when your model is so obliging.

The Menara KL (KL Tower) is rather bland when compared to its sexy cousin across town. But I think the Menara KL has its charms, rising as it does from a patch of green land in the middle of the city. I've used it as a landmark to guide me through the tangle of city streets without a map.

The design is also based on Islamic motifs. I'm no scholar of Islamic art, but instantly recognized the influence when staring up the tower head.

According to Wikipedia: "The touristic building is adorned with designs that reflect the Malaysian Islamic culture. The main lobby of the upper ground floor is decorated with exquisite glass-clad domes that sparkle like giant diamonds. These domes were designed and arranged in the form of the Muqarnas by Iranian craftsmen from Isfahan."

I could read that a hundred times, but without a few pictures it means nothing to me.

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Going Solo

The question I’m asked the most is “Where are you from?” The second is “Are you traveling alone?” After answering this for the hundredth time, I got to thinking about the vicissitudes of being a solo traveler. Whether it’s better to travel alone or not is a debate I will leave for others -- the pros and cons are quite obvious, and neither method is "better." For me, however, going solo is the only way to travel.

Since visiting Kuala Terengganu, I’ve been to a few places where the pros and cons of independent travel were brought into stark relief.

But first, it must be said that no solo traveler is completely alone. Hostels are everywhere, and there is a transient backpacking population that makes interaction easy. Even a shy guy like myself, who lacks the ability to make small talk with strangers, can meet people in hostels. But hostels, while cheap, do not always offer the comforts a 40-year-old on the road craves. I stayed in a 17-bed dorm for two weeks in Singapore. Yes, 17 beds, co-ed, three showers, two toilets. It was a great hostel and the experience was memorable. However, since then I’ve been looking for a bit more space, some privacy and a higher level of comfort. Also, after months of mingling with twenty-somethings I wanted to meet some people my own age.

My first stop after Kualu Terengganu was the Perhentian islands. Many folks on the road have told me that the Perhentian islands are a must, a paradise on earth with white-sand beaches and spectacular diving. If they are so impressive, I deserved to do them in style.

There are two Perhentians. The big island, Kecil, is for backpackers, offering budget accommodation and parties every night. Besar is more relaxed, with an older crowd but not as many options for accomodation.

I decided to book a room at the Tuna Bay Resort on Besar after reading some posts on the Lonely Planet message board. The room was lovely, even if it cost more than any other room I’d stayed in since leaving the U.S. The resort was nice enough, but noise from the construction of a new jetty at the end of the beach was just plain unpleasant.

Boat, Pulau Perhentian Besar

In the end, being single and 40 and staying in a place like the Tuna Bay Resort might not have been such a good idea. I was the only guest who was not part of a couple or a family. I met a few folks at the bar one night, but for the most part people kept to themselves, even smiles were in short supply. Like a pedestrian on the streets of New York, I was pretty much ignored. I was among travelers older than the backpacker crowd, yet here I was, still an outsider.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Even at home I spend most of my free time alone; I have no problems keeping myself occupied. I spent two days relaxing under the sun, taking photos, writing, reading (two top notch mysteries -- Lee Child’s “The Hard Way” and Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One”) and swimming in the warm sea. I considered staying longer to get PADI certified, until I went on a snorkeling expedition and saw nothing but dead coral and polluted water. The snorkeling guide brought a loaf of white bread, which he would tear into pieces and throw into the water, sending the fish into a feeding frenzy and turning what could have been tolerable into a farce.

Environmental awareness is at a much lower level here than in other places I’ve visited. Perhaps I was spoiled by the immaculateness of Australia. But even the dirtiest beaches in the U.S., like Coney Island, are spotless compared what I've seen in Malaysia.

The most heinous example I witnessed of blatant disregard for the environment was on the snorkeling trip. Two young Malaysia couples in their early twenties brought a pack of cigarettes onto the boat, lighting up as soon as we left the shore. I was flabbergasted that they would chain smoke on a snorkeling expedition, floored and angry every time they tossed their butts into the water. Also, an afternoon walk down the beach was an exercise in avoiding garbage and dead fish. One solid day of cleanup would go a long way toward making turning Besar into a much nicer place. They’ve got a long way to go.

Beach, Pulau Perhentian Besar

But these pictures make it look so pretty, you might say. What the pictures don't show is the filth. See that yellow boat? There was a dead fish floating in the water just out of the frame. That white sand beach? About 25 large plastic bags lay in the sand in the distance.

My friend Elisa recently attended a conference in Malaysia on the health of the coastal waters in Southeast Asia. She told me that if people knew the level of pollution around here, they would stay out of the water altogether. Frightening.

I left the Perhentian islands with one more stop on the east coast, a city of nearly half a million called Kota Bharu, the capital of the state of Kelantan, near the Thai border. I again decided to skip the backpacker hostels and booked a room in an affordable midrange hotel. Kota Bharu, like Kuala Terengganu, is a conservative Muslim city, which means there’s not a lot for a Jew from L.A. to do other than eat and gawk. I spent a day and a half walking around – highlights were the night market, where I ate blue rice and befriended the young owner of one of the beverage stalls, and a morning at a bird-singing competition. The locals were uniformly friendly and gracious, and I was surprised by the number of times both men and women both offered sincere, generous smiles. I wondered if they would do the same if I were not traveling alone.

Night Market, Kota Bharu

Red-Whiskered Bulbul at Bird-Singing Competition, Kata Bharu

I have no great insight into the life of the solo traveler, only my own experience. I hate to come off as bitter, but sometimes I am. All I know is I’d rather be outsider among friendly locals than an outsider among impassive foreigners.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

A Kualu to Remember

Throw a dart at a map of the world and it will likely land somewhere in the middle of an ocean. Throw it again. If it strikes land, chances are it will be someplace you’ve never heard of. Before I arrived in Malaysia, I’d heard of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Borneo. Everywhere else was just a name on a map.

I left Singapore with the goal of traveling way up the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, moving slowly, no more than a few hours at a time. The coast is not that long and I planned to cover the distance from Singapore to the Thai border in about ten leisurely days. My first stop was Pulau Tioman, then to the beach town of Cherating. Pulau Perhentian, a destination other travelers swore I could not miss, was still seven hours north. I threw a dart at a map and it landed in Kuala Terengganu.

Kuala Terengganu is the capital of Terengganu, one of the richest states in Malaysia. Once a fishing village, oil revenue has transformed the town into a bustling small city with 250,000 residents. There is nothing a visitor has to see, no significant architecture or historical sites. I arrived in the early afternoon and as I walked the city’s streets, along its broad beaches, through the colorful central market and finally in and out of narrow alleys in Chinatown, I was struck by its accessibility and the openness of the locals.

Entrance to Sultan's Palace, Kuala Terengganu

There are many reasons to travel. Some people seek out cultural attractions or natural wonders; some are fascinated by a region’s history, favoring trips to the past over living the present. A well-rounded journey takes in all these things. I’ve found since arriving in Asia, however, that I’m often led by something more primal: hunger. My stomach guides me. Or is it the taste buds?

The Lonely Planet entry for Kuala Terengganu says it’s a good place to sample some regional specialties. My goal for the 18 hours I would spend there was to try nasi gagang, a breakfast dish of rice and glutinous rice sweetened with coconut milk and wrapped around a morsel of fish. The whole thing is then enclosed in a banana leaf and served with a side of fish curry. In Japan I ate onigiri, triangles of rice in a seaweed wrapper. Nasi gagang sounded like the Malay version. But what would I do with so much time to kill before breakfast?

Anyone who is led by the stomach will eventually find his way to the central market, along with local buses a sure source of local color and flavor. A brisk walk along the waterfront and past the sultan’s palace brought me to the market, a split-level building divided into sections based on the goods for sale, from fruits and vegetables and fish on the street level to fabrics and housewares in the crowded aisles on the second floor.

I spent the next hour wandering the aisles, asking rudimentary questions about anything that caught my eye. Most of the vendors only spoke Malay, so there was a lot of pointing and shrugging of shoulders. I was offered samples: two varieties of salak (called snake fruit in English due to it’s hard scaly skin), a tart morsel of flesh around a hard brown pip; godol, a soft, subtly sweet chewy triangle the size of a caramel, made from glutinous rice and cane sugar; and keropok keping, fish crackers spiced with red chilies. The crackers are the dry version of keropok lekor, a mixture of fish paste and sago flour molded into long grey sausages.

Keropok Lekor

Islam is the state religion of Malaysia and the residents of Kuala Terengganu reflected conservative views in the way they dressed. I changed into long pants before leaving my hotel just to feel more comfortable. Women, while active in all parts of society, wear headscarves (tudong, covering the head but not the face) and loose-fitting dresses that cover everything but the feet and hands –I’ve only seen two women wearing full veils in all my time in Malaysia. Now, after 10 days among modestly dressed women, I can understand the allure of a finely formed ankle.

I offer this aside for a reason. On the second floor of the market, I wandered through aisles of colorful silks, marveling at the variety and quality. In a few stalls, there were swaths of woven fabric, perhaps two feet by six feet, costing RM600, close to US$200, an astounding figure in a country where a meal can be had on the street for RM4. Rows of headscarves hung overhead and on the walls of the stalls in a dizzying array of colors and designs. My first few days in Malaysia I thought all the women looked like they wore the same things. With a little market research, I know notice the subtle differences in their dress. I don’t know enough about fashion, clothing, textiles or Islam to describe this further. I wish I could.


The afternoon was another scorcher, with high humidity. As I wandered through the streets of Kualu Terengganu’s small Chinatown, I only had one thing on my mind: liquid. I was thirsty. I noticed a group of people sitting on the patio at a restaurant called T. Homemade Café and wandered in for a look. A woman approached me and just said “what do you want to drink?” I guess it showed on my face.

Her approach was so direct and honest I decided there was no point in arguing. I ordered a watermelon juice and grabbed the nearest seat. T. Homemade Café is not just one restaurant. There are four or five stalls in a long dining room, another two or three set up outside. What is served depends on the time of day.

By my table on the patio and man was thinly slicing roast pork for plates of mee siam, a dish of thin noodles covered in a tamarind sauce and accompanied by meat and greens. I was hungry, the pork looked good, so I ordered some. It was an unremarkable meal, but I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning (other than a few handouts at the market) and it hit the spot. The watermelon juice was fresh and cold. In 15 minutes I was refreshed and thinking of moving on.

The same women who’d approached me earlier came back and said hello, asking if I wanted anything else. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a signboard for the café that featured a glass of dragonfruit juice. I’d tried a white version of this tropical fruit in Australia and found it bland, somewhere between a watermelon and a kiwi, but without a bite. Dragonfruit also comes in a deep red variety, and I asked if this is what she served. She said yes, and I ordered a glass. What came to me was a frosty mug of purple juice, a mix of dragonfruit and lychee that was as close to a slurpee as I’d seen in months.

From left, Watermelon, Dragonfruit with Grape, Dragonfruit with Lychee

By this time I’d moved out of the heat and into the main dining room. It wasn’t much cooler, but the air was moved by a set of ceiling fans. The woman noticed as I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the juice. Then another women walked by with a tray carrying three more colorful mugs. The first woman told her to stop so I could take another photo. At this point I’d made a new friend.

The woman introduced herself as Jennifer. I’m not sure if she owned the restaurant; surely she was part of an extended family that worked there. She asked me the usual questions about my trip and then I asked where I could go for the best nasi gagang in town. She drew me a map to the real deal. She left me to my dragonfruit drink (delicious, by the way, much better than the white fruit I’d tried in Oz.

I was again about to leave when Jennifer came back. Somehow I got on to the subject of fruit and mentioned how I’d fallen in love with soursop in Singapore. “I have that too,” she said. “You want one?” With an offer of a mug of soursop juice on the table, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

I finally made it out of there after three tall mugs of juice and a small plate of the Chinese version of keropok. After so much sweet juice, the fishy snack was a shock to my taste buds, especially when dipped in the spicy sambal on the side.

Jennifer and Kids

I said goodbye to Jennifer and her extended family, thinking I would never see them again. The plan was to wake up early, go for nasi gagang and catch a 10 am bus out of town. But I overslept and the 10 am bus broke down. I would have to wait until 11:30 to get out of town. Sometimes travelers don’t travel, they just sit and wait.

There was no question about my next move – I headed straight for T. Homemade Café. I was greeted by Jennifer, who immediately asked me if I’d like the nasi gagang. I confessed that I had overslept and she laughed, then told me she’d get me some.

“Where?” I asked.

“I will drive and pick it up,” she said.

“No, you can’t to do that.”

“Sit. What do you drink?”

I didn’t have a choice. Ten minutes later Jennifer returned with two banana leaf cones and a baggie filled with curry sauce. She fetch a small bowl for the curry and brought me a fork and spoon. Nasi gagang didn’t knock my socks off, but it is a very good breakfast food. It’s light, a bit sweet from the coconut milk and bracing from the curry. I suspect the fish at the center of the rise is last night’s leftovers.

When it came time to me to leave, for good this time, I asked Jennifer what I owed her for the food. She wouldn’t take one ringgit from me.

Kualu Terengganu didn’t exist for me before I threw that dart. Now it’s one of the highlights of my trip.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Day on the Road

Travelers move, that’s just what they do. The places in between get all the attention, but there is something to be said about the act of getting from one place to another. My route from Pulau Tioman to the beach town of Cherating is a good example of a day on the road.

I woke at 6:45 on my third morning in Salang, the tiny enclave at the northern end of Pulau Tioman, an island in the Seribaut Archipelago in the Malaysian state of Johor. There is not much to do in Salang other than scuba, snorkel or laze on the beach. Long-tailed macaque monkeys hide in the trees and monitor lizards, some up to six-feet long, swim in the stagnant canal behind the beach. Otherwise, it’s all cats and hammocks.

Catch of the Day

I’d been in Salang for two and a half days, one spent reading on the porch of my chalet while a steady rain muddied the town, another on the beach listening to the water lap at the shore and chatting with a smattering of Europeans. Nights were spent eating seafood and drinking Tiger beer at beachside cafes with new friends: Mike from Canada; Mei and Sean, two Malaysian women on a short break from work in Singapore; and a pair of English sisters on holiday, Gemma and Lea. As I mentioned before I left Singapore, it was time to be a traveler again. A few days of this and I was ready to move

There is regular ferry service from Tioman to the mainland, but it is infrequent and a little planning was in order. I bought a ticket on the 8 am slow ferry to Mersing, where I would catch an express bus to Kuantan, the crumbling capital of Pahang, and then a local bus to Cherating, a small village (kampung) on the coast. There are no services in Cheriting so I planned to spend some time in Kuantan to run some errands.

The seats on the slow ferry define a lack of legroom. A cramped cabin held about 45 seats, six per row divided by a central aisle. Each seat was about five inches behind the seat in front, leaving enough room only for small children or adults with no legs. Even in a seat on the aisle, twisted sideways, I was barely able to sit comfortably.

Tioman is 50 kilometers from the mainland, a direct trip of about 90 minutes. However, Salang was the first of six stops the ferry would make before heading west. The next hour was a slow slog from beach to beach. At each stop, Malays and foreigners would board the boat, look at the seats and wonder how they were going to sit comfortably; I witnessed head shakes and eye rolls and heard a few disbelieving chuckles.

As soon as the boat left the last jetty, a man turned on a television at the front of the cabin and inserted a DVD into a player. I prepared to play one of my favorite games: “Name That Movie,” a distant cousin to “Name That Tune.” Sometimes I can guess a film from the opening few shots or from the members of the cast. If I can’t figure it out by the time the title card appears, I’ve lost. This film started with the Marvel Comics logo and I immediately guessed “Spider-Man.” But it wasn’t Spidey, not even “X-Men” or “Daredevil.” It was a high-quality bootleg of “Ghost Rider,” in which Nicholas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a carnival daredevil who sells his soul to the devil and is transformed into a vengeful motorcycle demon whose distinguishing characteristic is his flaming skull.

I couldn’t hear the dialogue and the subtitles provided an English translation that was not only grammatically incorrect, it often missed the point of the dialogue entirely. But “Ghost Rider” is not high art and I was able to follow the plot from the action alone. I’ve often said that if you can follow a film without the sound, it’s well made. Without sound, “Ghost Rider” is a well-made film. I’m curious to know how it ends, though, because about 15 minutes from the end we pulled into Mersing. I wasn’t going to sit in that cramped cabin and watch to the end. Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze was in a graveyard – or was the ruins of a castle? – battling what appeared to be a boy band from hell. I assume he defeats the evil, reunites with his childhood girlfriend and learns how to live with his comfortably with flames engulfing his head. I also assume, based on the success of the film at the box office, that we haven’t seen the last of Ghost Rider.

Seagull Express

It was a quick walk to the bus station from the Mersing ferry terminal. A taxi driver offered to take me to my next destination, Kuantan, for RM150 (one U.S. dollar equals about 3 Malaysian ringgit) but I knew the bus would be much less, RM12.60. I wasn’t looking for the cheapest route north; I’m not one of those backpackers always looking for the best deal or the cheapest option, sleeping in mildew-encrusted rooms under creaking fans barely cutting through the humidity. When I travel short distances, I prefer to travel like the locals. It’s a way to mingle with the population and to get a bit of perspective on the culture.

The 11 am bus to Kuantan was running late, a delay I was willing to endure when I discovered an expert had been called in to fix the air conditioning. I settled into seat 8A at 11:30, directed the stream of cool air into my face and prepared for the three-hour journey. Most of the time these bus rides include any number of distractions, the most common being a movie, but sometimes loud music or loud chatter. To my surprise, this trip was silent, no movies, music or conversation, just the steady hum from the engine. The driver made up the lost half hour by speeding like a bat out of hell, swerving from lane to lane but always avoiding oncoming traffic. Still, it was the most peaceful bus experience I’ve had since leaving New York.

In Kuantan, I was again offered a taxi ride to my next destination. A private car to Cherating, about 40 kilometers up the highway, would cost RM50 and take 45 minutes. The local bus cost RM3.50 and takes 90 minutes. Again I chose local transport, for the experience. But first I had some business to take care of.

Kuantan is a hectic city of substantial size. At the center of town is Masjid Negiri, a beautiful mosque painted light blue and white. It towers majestically over the sun-drenched streets and the crumbling facades. Just behind the mosque was my first stop: the ATM at HSBC bank. Across Jalan Mahkota, I stopped at Hamid Bros bookstore to exchange my remaining Singapore dollars for Malaysian ringgit. Books were neatly laid out on table and logically sorted on the shelves lining the walls. If I spoke Malaysian, I would have been sucked in for an hour of browsing (one of my weaknesses is a good bookstore; if you’re ever in Singapore check out Page One in Vivo City). Two doors down, I popped into a phone shop and paid RM10 for a new SIM card (my Malaysian number is 013 940-9850, from the U.S. dial 011 60 13 940-9850). While waiting for the service to be activated, I ate lunch (biryani rice, steamed vegetables and fried chicken) at the restaurant next door, where a man behind a counter pounded dough for rotis and old men sipped sweetened coffee while smoking pungent cigarettes.

It’s a short walk to Jalan Besar and the local bus terminal. When taking local buses, you just have to ask for help. Sometimes the buses are labeled. Sometimes they have a number. Sometimes your stop is not included on the list of destinations. In Yogyakarta, the local buses had numbers that looked like they’d been painted on my pre-schoolers. Regardless of your destination, however, you are guaranteed a hot ride in crowded conditions.

I boarded the 4 pm bus at 3:40. By 3:43 I was soaked in sweat. By 3:52, all the seats were filled and space in the aisle was at a premium. At 4 pm, passengers were still boarding as the bus pulled out of the station. The first stop was directly in front of the mosque, across the street from Hamid Bros bookshop. Good thing I walked to the station and secured a seat.

As the bus rolled through Kuantan, I took in the sites: the football stadium, a tellecomunications headquarters, the BMW dealership (I don’t know if the 528i is available in Kuantan) and countless roadside restaurants. Beyond the city center, I spied housing developments that wouldn’t be out of place in Orange County. Outside of the city, the countryside was dotted with kampungs and seaside resorts. Passengers hopped on and off throughout the journey to Cherating, the bus conductor chirping “okay, lah” whenever passengers had cleared the doorway and it was okay for the driver to press on.

There’s a degree of trust that’s necessary when taking local transportation. I had asked the conductor to let me know when I should get off. I’d been seeing signs that said “Cherating” for about 10 kilometers when he suddenly looked my way and said my stop was next. He then pointed to a small road and told me to walk that way. I collected my bag and jumped off the bus, his “okay lah” mixed nearly drowned out by the sound of the revving engine.

Where was I? By the side of the highway in a strange country, no recognizable landmarks or street signs in English. I would have to trust the conductor and start walking down that road. But he was an honest man, and ten minutes later I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Lonely Planet praises Cherating: “Effortlessly ranked among the east coast’s top spots, the travellers’ kampung of Cherating waylays visitors with a woozy concoction of sunshine, seaside charms and an infectiously leisurely tempo.”

Cherating is certainly leisurely; any place where you can count the tourists on two hands is bound to be mellow. There are plenty of places to stay, and I spent the first 45 minutes checking out the options. At one backpackers’ resort, the owner showed me a dank prison-cell for RM30 a night. I told him I wanted something else and he asked me if I was looking for something cheaper – the curse of the backpacker, forever being judged as a penny-pinching tourist. I said something about wanting to spend more, and a quick look of surprise passed across his face.

I settled on a chalet (the local name for stand-alone cabins) with hot shower and air-con, a comfortable bed and a private patio. In a quirk of timing, as soon as I dropped my pack, the sky opened up, drenching the area for the next hour with monsoon ferocity.

Cherating Storm

After two weeks in a hostel dormitory in Singapore, and a few nights of spartan living on Tioman, my RM90 room in Cherating was perfect. It only took eight hours, a ferry and two buses to get here.

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Three Essentials

Passport, money and clothes are all anyone really needs to travel. A guidebook helps, but isn’t essential. Nor are cell phones, iPods and cameras. A medical kit is a good idea, as is a good pair of sunglasses (sunnies the Australians call them). I’ve seen travelers break out portable speakers and hair dryers, hiking boots on the beach and designer clothes in the jungle. One woman carried a giant plastic plunger thingy to draw out venom from insect bites. I confess I carry too many books and a heavy tangle of cables and chargers.

With all of this in mind, though, there are three things I carry that have become essential tools in my arsenal. Each item is small, simple and ordinary, yet so useful I couldn’t travel a day without each one.

The first item on my list of traveling essentials is a headlamp. It’s a no-brainer that you should carry a flashlight when you travel. I recommend a headlamp instead. I brought a mini Maglite from the U.S., but found it difficult to carry in one hand while trying to find something in my pack with the other. When I was in Australia, my tour guides all had headlamps that left their hands free. I bought one in Adelaide before heading into the Outback and will never turn back. Whether it’s walking along a pitch-black track, looking at my watch in the middle of the night or rummaging through my pack in a dark hostel dorm, my Petzl was worth every Australian cent. My Irish friend Dean lost my Maglite somewhere in the Flinders Ranges, so I really have no choice. Thanks Dean.

I left the U.S. with a stack of black moleskin notebooks given to me by my friend Sarah. I used the notebooks every day during the first few weeks in Australia, filling the pages with notes, numbers and rough sketches of blog posts. The only problem was their size, about 5’ by 7’ and thin as a Necco wafer. I had to dig into my bag whenever I wanted to write something down. I bought a stack of mini spiral notepads somewhere outside of Adelaide and, again, will never look back. I keep a notepad and a pen in my pocket at all times, always ready to jot down notes, a phone number, directions or an email address. I rip out a page at a time to give new friends my blog URL. I’m surprised how many people not only travel without something to write on, they usually don’t even have something to write with. The spiral notebook is like oxygen to me.

My final essential item is exceedingly simple, concept and execution: foam earplugs. Being a traveler means putting yourself at the mercy of the world. Sometimes there’s no privacy, solitude or peace. Earplugs go a long way toward drowning out everything annoying, from screaming child on a bus to snoring roommate in a hostel. (If there were such a thing as noseplugs, I might use them too, but that’s a different story.) I use the squishy kind of earplugs, the ones you smash into a sliver and then jam into your ear. If inserted correctly, they expand to fill the canal and block a majority of the sound. It took me a long time to learn how to insert them properly – most of the time I’d wake up with one earplug in and the other tangled in the bedsheet. Now that I have a handle on the procedure, I sleep like a baby no matter where I lay my head.

Headlamp, Notepads and Earplugs


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Malaysian Castaway

My greatest fear about Malaysia was that it would be Indonesia Redux. As I write this from a tiny beach called Salang on the island of Pulau Tioman in the South China Sea, I can say with confidence that Malaysia is nothing like Indonesia. All I've seen is a bus rise through the countryside and an isolated island surrounded by turquoise waters, but there's no hard sell here, no sense of desperation in the population, no urge to run and hide. I was greeted by one travel agent when the bus dropped me off in the port town of Mersing, and one tout waited at the end of the jetty when I arrived in Salang, but they throwing softballs, easily deflected with a smile and a no thanks.

The trip from Singapore was delayed 24 hours because both direct buses leaving Monday morning were booked solid. I boarded an air-conditioned coach on Tuesday at 9 a.m., seat 10A, and with sadness said goodbye to Singapore. Backpackers listen up: Singapore is more than a layover en route to Thailand or Australia.

A quick stop at immigration, my passport stamped with a purple ninety-day visa, and I was in Malaysia, country number four on my Asian adventure. Only four countries, you cry! Haven't you been traveling for months? Well, yes I have. If you read Newsweek magazine you'd know that the latest trend in travel is slowing down and seeing more.

Welcome to Malaysia

The drive to Mersing passed through countryside dotted with villages and the occasional small town. There's nothing of note in Mersing, just ferries to the Seribaut Archipelago, a collection of islands of which Tioman, 50 kilometers from Peninsular Malaysia, is the largest. I chose Tioman because I wanted a few days of desert-island isolation.

However, unless you book yourself into a private resort there will always be others around. On Tioman that means a lot of Malaysians, Singaporeans and a sprinkling of westerners. It’s a tiny place – you can walk from one end of the village to the other in about five minutes – so the sense of isolation is still complete. Also, there are no roads; all transportation is by boat. There are a few hiking trails into the interior that I hope to explore in the days ahead.

On the ferry to Tioman, I met a Canadian, Mike, who had decided on a whim to cut short a two-week trip to Japan and fly south for some scuba diving. When we arrived in Salang, I found a chalet two steps from the beach, complete with patio overlooking the small bay, and we decided to split the cost. The afternoon was absolutely scorching and I spent most of it in the shelter of the air-conditioned room. The temperatures dropped in the evening and Mike and I camped out for a few hours at a beachside café eating curried fish and drinking Tiger beer, lightning illuminating the distant clouds to the west. The idea of a beachside cafe may sound cliché, but drinking ice-cold beer on a beach in the South China Sea trumps cliché any day.

Pulau Tioman

Unfortunately, the new day brought pouring rain. The wet weather was bad news for Mike, whose scuba outing was canceled. Good news for me, though: I finally had the time I needed to finish “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” This brilliantly written piece of literature is trying at times but I found it ultimately rewarding. It’s been criticized for dropping cultural references in every other paragraph. I ate it up, proving how much of a A) intellectual) B) bibliophile C) smarty pants I am. It’s rare that I feel strongly for a fictitious character. But if the snarky know-it-all teenager Blue van Meer were flesh and blood I’d fall hopelessly in love with her, her protective anti-establishment father be damned.

Pulau Tioman

If you want to see what Pulau Tioman looked like in the 1950's, rent "South Pacific." I'm sure it looks quite different today.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Time to Travel

I woke up this morning with a strange feeling. It was something I hadn't experienced in more than three months. It was a sense of peace, a complacency, but it masked something deeper and more complex, something that set me on edge. It was a feeling I'd experienced during my last few weeks in New York City, when I knew there was a trip around the corner, a world waiting to be discovered. I was comfortable: I had a routine, a warm bed, cable television and 24/7/365-access to the Internet. What would happen when I unplugged, when I started living out of a backpack and changing my address every few days? That deeper feeling was fear. As long as I stayed in one place, I was fine. What would happen when I ventured into the unknown?

Such is the life of a traveler. I've been in Singapore for two weeks and, frankly, I've become a bit too comfortable. If the joy of travel is facing the unexpected and the new (some say it's the people, I think that sentiment is overrated), it's time for me to once again cast off the familiar and jump into the unknown.

I'm a fan of the travel maxim that you can either live in one place and change your clothes every day, or wear the same clothes and change the place. A few days ago my friend Karen from The Inn Crowd hostel remarked on the static nature of my wardrobe. It was an innocuous comment. But to me it was as obvious as flashing neon: Time to move on. So I've decided to leave Singapore in the morning and head to Pulau Tioman, an island off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. According to legend, it is the home of a dragon princess who offers shelter and comfort to travelers.

I will miss Singapore. I've written about stuffing my face with delicious food, giving short shrift to the rest of my experience here. There's not much for a visitor to do here other than work, eat, shop and sleep. The travelers I've met have spent their time at Sentosa Island (an amusement park), at the zoo and spending way too much for beer at nightclubs. These things don't interest me. I spent the time buying supplies; watching movies ("Sunshine," "Spider-Man 3," "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"); making new friends (Billie, Karen, Margie, Giovanni, Pete); reading ("Special Topics in Calamity Physics"), writing (Packmonkey, pieces for Time Out Singapore and , taking photos; and generally taking a break from my break. I also played tourist with visits to the National Orchid Garden, the Merlion and Shuang Lin Monastery.

I spoke with my friend Elizabeth in New York City this morning (Skype, .021 cents a minute!) and she supplied another sign in flashing neon. I was telling her how I'll miss free Internet access and afternoon Starbucks, and she said I could have stayed in New York City if that's what I want. Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Lizzie.

What's the point of this post? Nothing more than it's time to become a traveler again. And to find something new to write about.

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Images of Singapore

My photographs from Singapore are not just about food, despite what you may have read on Packmonkey. I have posted 150 images from the last two weeks. Here are some of my non-edible favorites:

Men in Glass


Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Tekka Centre Shrine

Vivo City Date

Shuang Lin Monastary Door

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Friday, May 04, 2007


Shiok: Singapore slang for “great/excellent/superb.”

I’m whole again, thanks for the superhuman, make that supercorporate, efforts of Sony Singapore. I spilled beer on my laptop on Monday night, brought it in for repair on Tuesday morning (a national holiday, no less) and picked it up – complete with a shiny new keyboard – on Thursday afternoon. In my experience computer repair takes a minimum of one millennium; a 53-hour turnaround boggles my mind. Pinch me. Customer service departments of the world, take note.

But I'm not in Singapore to talk about customer service. I'm here to eat. And eating is what I've been about this week, with both Makansutra and a few locals as guides. I’m not going to chronologically rehash everything I’ve shoveled into my maw. Highlights will have to suffice.

I wrote last weekend about an attempt to track down Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, only to discover that the hawker stall had decamped for a week for a trip to New York. Tian Tian is back, and the chicken rice was worth the wait. Some cooks just have a knack for blending ingredients, lulling diners into a flavor-fueled trance. A huge plate of Tian Tian chicken rice disappeared as I scooped mouthful after mouthful into my face. I snapped out it in time to recognize that I was about to eat the last bite, paused for dramatic effect, said thanks to the food gods and closed the book on my Singapore chicken rice experience. I’ve paid homage to the dish with a Packmonkey banner, above. The complete meal is picture below.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice

Food experiences are great. Shared food experiences are better. I’d been talking at length at my hostel about my love for the local cuisine, and the folks who work there were happy to throw out recommendations. I was intrigued by something Karen said I must try: Steamboat. Is this the name of a dish or a type of cuisine? Do I need to be in a boat to eat it? Will it fog up my glasses? She offered to lead a steamboat expedition the following night. Trusting that I would not be led into the heart of darkness, I quickly signed on.

Makansutra explains steamboat: “Cook-it-yourself hotpot, with a whole spread of raw sliced meats, vegetables, eggs, vermicelli, seafood, etc. The broth takes on the essence of all the ingredients and is at its richest at the end of the meal.”

Four of us met Karen the next night, where she led us to a sprawling, outdoor complex by the harbor. A propane tank under each table delivered heat to a hotpot filled with water and an outer ring for tabletop grilling. A large buffet in the center of the restaurant was piled with raw seafood, marinated meats and raw vegetables. I was able to identify most of the offerings; I accept the mystery surrounding everything else.

Karen handed out plates and assignments. I was to gather seafood, Paul from Australia would collect the meat and a pair of Englishmen, Mat and Tom, were sent for vegetables. We each returned with plates piled high. The next 90 minutes were spent boiling, grilling and eating. There was nothing spectacular about the food; it’s the communal steamboat experience that made the meal memorable. Once we’d stuffed ourselves, Karen took off to pick up some ice cream. She returned with three flavors: durian, red bean and sweet corn. I chose the sweet corn. It should be called creamed corn from a can ice cream. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve eaten on this trip, worse than Vegemite. Worse even than the diesel fumes I choked down at the Yogyakarta bus station. The poo-poo aftertaste of the durian ice cream provided a pleasant alternative.

Sweet Corn Ice Cream... Yuck

Like Holden Caulfield on a quest for the truth, I continued my Singapore eating spree. I ate fragrant biryani at the Tekka Centre in Little India, where stall after stall serves up Muslim and Indian food. Off the beaten track, in a housing complex in Bedok, I tried Char Kway Teow, a heavy, fried noodle dish sprinkled with briny cockles and chewy Chinese sausage. I washed down meals with fresh soursop juice (move over mangosteen, soursop's the new sheriff in town).

The Indonesian dessert Chendol was an intriguing blend of coconut and caramel – dulce de leche in a cup! – but the green slivers of rice jelly kept rising through my straw and reminding me or worms (ok, maggots) and I threw it out. On a lark, I tried a prawn vadai, a fried donut with an unshelled prawn embedded in the center, a fresh green chili providing a contrast to the lump of greasy dough.

Before arriving in Singapore I’d been told I had to try stingray. I was immediately intrigued. Perhaps I was still hooked on Australia and was seeking a little revenge for the death of Steve Irwin. Again, the crew at the Inn Crowd hostel came through. Karen was busy, but she enlisted Marcus as my guide and translator.

Satay at East Coast Lagoon

Marcus took me out of the city center to East Coast Lagoon, a food center on the eastern side of the island. The east coast is an upscale district, and the food center was built to resemble a tropical food court, complete with palm trees and thatched roofs. The proximity to the shore, even if the view was of dozens of cargo ships anchored in the channel, allowed me to accept this fabrication. The clientele included many smiling ex pats, all of them looking like they put in some hard hours at banks and other financial institutions.

Marcus led me around the food center, explaining the choices and answering some lingering questions about Singapore cuisine. From one stall we ordered stingray grilled on a banana leaf. From another, tiger prawn imported from Thailand. We added a plate of steamed green vegetables called kang kong, hallow stalks with attached leafy greens, and a plate of rojak, assorted wedges – tofu, fried flour bits called yew tiao, turnip, pineapple and cucumber – covered in a sweet black sauce and chopped peanuts. We ordered a few glasses of fresh sugar cane juice to wash it all down. The stingray, prawn and kang kong were served with thick and pungent chili sauce called sambal. The whole meal cost about U.S.$20, on the steep side for Singapore. But you get what you pay for. Everything was delicious except the rojak, which tasted fishy to me and which Marcus confirmed was “off.”

Grilled Stingray

It’s now Friday afternoon. I’ve been in Singapore almost two full weeks and don’t feel like moving on. There’s still plenty of food to taste – laksa has been on my list for a week – but I know there’s much more to Southeast Asia. I expect I’ll leave on Monday or Tuesday, either for Kuala Lumpur or direct to Borneo. A friend says I cannot miss Penang, where, he swears, the food is even better than in Singapore. Some research is in order. Any suggestions? Send them my way.

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A Tale of Two Monkeys

A quick post to alert you to a piece I wrote for the web site Tripmaster Monkey ("Home of Yellow Journalism"). TMM is a home-grown affair published by a friendly group of journalists and writers in New York City. It's a volunteer effort and I'm happy that they've asked me to contribute. They've branded it "Packmonkey Tales," complete with a nifty graphic. The first installment revisits my misadventures in Indonesia. If you missed those posts, here's the short version. After all, there's never been a story that couldn't be told in fewer words.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Technical Difficulties, Please Stand By

I've told myself a thousand times to be careful with electronics. I store my laptop in a padded case and stuff it in a plastic bag when it's idle. I keep my phone and iPod in plastic bags, just in case I get caught in an afternoon downpour. So I'm kicking myself because last night I was surfing the web while drinking cheap Tiger beers at the hostel bar. I think you know what happens next. I processed a batch of new photos and while waiting for them to upload to Flickr, I placed my computer next to my beer. I have no peripheral vision, and I'm a bit of a klutz. I knocked over the mug, spilling beer directly onto the keyboard. I scrambled to shut off the laptop and did my best to dry it out, but this morning the keyboard was D.O.A. The hard drive seems fine, and the touchpad works, but I can't type a single letter.

The unit is now at a Sony service center, where it will receive a new keyboard and an service check. These things never happen overnight, and the best they could promise is next Monday. So I'm in Singapore for another week. I have yet to visit the museums, I've got a stack of novels and there are photos to take. There's still plenty of food to be devoured. "Spider-Man 3" opened today and I've got a ticket for tonight (I've only seen three movies in the past three months; I have a lot of catching up to do). Also, the hostel attracts a friendly crowd and there's always something social going on.

I'm more upset about not having easy access to the Internet than about the computer being busted. On the bright side, of all the places in all of Southeast Asia to spill beer on a keyboard, Singapore is probably the best place to find qualified technicians and reliable service.

I will still post to Packmonkey. It just isn't as fun to write in an Internet cafe as it is at, say, Starbucks while slurping a Banana Java Chip Frappacino.

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