Greetings from Borneo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong
As part of my program studying governance and politics in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, we spent a week in East Malaysia, which consists of two states, Sabah and Sarawak, encompassing the northern third of the island of Borneo. Academically, we were to take note of differences between the level of development and the culture we'd experienced in Peninsular Malaysia. The difference was apparent from when we first stepped out of the airport. The air quality is a million times better and rich greenery had replaced the tall buildings I had grown accustomed to. Our cab drivers from the airport to Bako National Rainforest Park, where we planned to stay for two nights, were all Chinese instead of Indian or Malay, as is common in Peninsular. Also, the indigenous people of Borneo are not ethnic Malays, but come from a variety of tribes, including Iban, Kelabit, Penan, and others. Because none of the ethnic groups in East Malaysia make up a large minority, inter-cultural mixing is common and accepted. For this reason, people on Borneo look very different from those in Peninsular Malaysia. Our stay in Bako was definitely the highlight of my abroad experience; we spent three days hiking through the forest, seeing hundreds of new species of plantlife, birds, and insects…one of the tribesmen at the park pointed out a viper in a tree right across from our cabin and later, I even managed to get attacked by a pack of monkeys. I hiked to some gorgeous beaches and viewed some really grand rock formations and waterfalls – basically, Borneo was everything I dreamed it would be. After our stay in Bako, we spent three nights in the city of Kuching, which is the capital of Sarawak. "Kuching" means cat in Malay, so there are really kitschy cat statues everywhere – which will never cease to be hilarious. Interestingly, Sarawak was a privately owned colony belonging to James Brooke, known as the First White Rajah of Sarawak. We visited his fort, toured various museums, and shopped (a lot) for various Sarawakean handicrafts. While in Kuching, we also attending the Rainforest World Music Festival, which is an award winning show sponsored by the Malaysian government that invites performers from around the world. Another fun excursion was to the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehab Centre, where we watched orangutans (which means "jungle people" in Malay) come out for feeding time. As a perfect example of Malaysian friendliness and hospitality, two students in my group and our group leader had met a Malaysian couple in Bako. Our group leader wanted to know of a good place to get a taste of authentic Sarawakean cuisine, and the couple just invited all 12 of us over to their home. The experience was fantastic – we had a home cooked meal of delicacies including snails, dried fish, and stingray, while listening to family stories.
The courses I took in Kuala Lumpur allowed me two free weekends to do some traveling of my own, the first of which I spent in Bangkok. The city is a really vibrant mix of big city life and traditional temples and hawker stalls. We (I went with some friends I'd made in my study abroad program) arrived late on a Friday night and after getting lost on the way to the guest house, finally found it and were pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness and good service (if you're ever in Bangkok, stay at the Tae Wez Guesthouse). The next morning, I woke up to the sound of chickens clucking and the smell of fresh incense burning in front of a small Buddha shrine. That first day, we toured the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace, which was incredible. The Thais love their king – the ruling family has been in power for over 4 centuries – which is evident from the huge pictures of him along every street. Highlights of the day included getting gypped by a tuk-tuk driver, watching a couple release a pair of birds for good luck at the top of a huge standing Buddha, boating along the canal to several temples (each prettier than the last), taking pictures next to the gigantic reclining Buddha, meeting a nice German man on the metro (who was just as lost as we were), and eating pad thai, tom yum soup, chicken satay, pineapple fried rice, and fresh juice (my favorites!). At night, we had a good time eating dinner and people-watching on Khaosan Road and shopping in the night market. The next day, I walked along our street, which was in a very local side of town, and watched fruit stallers chop up fresh mangos and jicama, vendors begin grilling satay skewers, and butchers hanging up fresh meat. We spent the day shopping for trinkets in Chatuchak Market (the largest open-air market in the world), visiting Erawan Shrine, the Giant Swing, and Lumpini Park. After resting and packing up our things, we headed to dinner on the pier. Halfway through our delicious tom yam dinner, I realized I had read the itinerary wrong and that our flight would be leaving in one hour – eek! Luckily, after running to get a taxi and running through the airport gates Home Alone-style, we made it onto the plane back to KL – phew!
As for my second free weekend, I visited my uncle and his family in Hong Kong. My aunt, stationed with her husband (who is an officer in the Bangladeshi Navy) in Nanjing, also came down for the weekend on her way back to Bangladesh. Needless to say, I had a great time – Hong Kong was definitely full of surprises. We visited Disneyland, which was a bit surreal for me – I felt like I was in California, except that there were more Asians in the lines than I remembered. The people I spoke with in Hong Kong were not as fluent in English as I'd expected but everyone knew the words to the Disney tunes and danced along to High School Musical without problems. After touring the city a bit, we took the Star Ferry to the other side of the harbor where we watched the Hong Kong Symphony of Lights laser show, where the entire skyline lights up in line with music – very cool. The next day, we took a two-story bus to Stanley Market, which has a mall, restaurants (where we had dim sum), and family activities all along the pier. A short bus ride also took us to the beach. When I pictured Hong Kong in my head, I did not expect the city to be so green, but green hills and mountains come into view at every turn. The city is incredibly modern and clean – the metro stations are like airports and my uncle told me that the janitors in his office clean the crevices in the escalators every night! Because the course I'd been taking in Kuala Lumpur was covering the rise of China, I looked for symbols of authoritarianism since the liberalization of the economy was obvious everywhere. Perhaps because of the British influence or because I was there for such a short time, but I didn't find many examples of this, save signs everywhere that say things like "observe sick regulations." Overall, a great city and a true example of China's economic might!