Here’s part 1 of the Malaysia travelogue epic. I’ll work on Part 2 soon, as I work off my jet lag.
Wednesday, August 25
Depart from JFK to Incheon, South Korea at 11 PM.
Departing late from work, P- dropped by to see me off. I got to JFK’s Terminal One in plenty of time; it did not look like it was that busy. I was hoping to carry on my roller luggage, but apparently on international flights, it is too big to fit into the form cage. On the other hand, I could check the luggage all the way through to Singapore and not have to worry about it when I went through immigration at South Korea. Having to kill 2 hours, I tried to get something to eat at Mcdonald’s, but could only get a Big Mac after failing to get a Quarter Pounder or a Big and Tasty. I was also recharging my phone while IMing P–.
Thursday, August 26
Service on Korean Air was very good. The bibimbap is their best airline meal ever: it’s tasty, filling, and unlikely to go wrong. Their second dish of beef or fish was a bit more hit or miss. The news spent much of the time talking about the Olympics, playing a clip about Hamm willing to give back the gold metal to the Korean gymnast. They spent close to 40 minutes analyzing Korea’s win in ping pong over China, playing the last missed volley over and over again. The Korean movies were an interesting mix; a soap opera about jealous family members trying to sell wild ginseng was really weird; the other movie, “My Mother the Mermaid” was a bit surreal. And yes, the stewardesses were uniformly attractive.
Friday, August 27
I’ve arrived in Incheon, South Korea, which is like one and one half hour away from Seoul. The arriving gate is quite a distance away from customs. There was some confusion whether I had to go to the transfer gate first, or directly through customs, but ultimately I asked the guard, and he said that I should go through customs. Once on the other side, there was somewhat of a problem: it’s like 3 in the morning, and there are not any busses available into the city until 5 am. The info station guys suggest hanging out by using the Yahoo! branded internet stations on the second level, which were 500 won (about 50 cents) for 10 minutes. Shortly after giving that advice, they decide to split, leaving a terminal full of sleeping travelers and the occasional police patrol. From between 5 and 6 am, I followed the “Sauna” signs to the B level. I was expecting some hole in the wall place. What I found instead was a cavernous space, first with rows of showers, followed by three levels of hot tub and whirlpool, then with a heat lamp resting area and three types of sauna: coal and hot rocks, red earth, or some third one that I didn’t understand. At the end, massages are available. After 20+ hours of traveling, that’s the best thing that you can do; just make sure that you don’t check in the bag with the underwear like I did.
After 6 AM, I catch the bus to Gimpo Airport. From there I can catch the 5 line to Dongdaemun Stadium to catch the 4 line to Myongdong. Most of the passengers on the 4 line are students from the local girls school and business attired commuters. Coming out of the station I was offered the Korean version of Metro, a free newspaper that’s available in New York. http://www.editorsweblog.org/2004/07/south_korea_fre.html . After meandering through the Myongdong shopping streets and passing by the clean streets brigade, I finally make it to Myongdong Cathedral. It’s built on a hill, so you have to walk up a long set of steps to get up to the top. Mass had just let out at 8 AM so there were only a few people praying inside the cathedral. Although the side aisles had poor sight lines, there were plasma screens mounted on every third column so that people can watch on TV. There is a grammar school to the right of the cathedral which looks like every school that you see in Japanese animation, including the bell chimes at the beginning of the school day.
At the base of the hill is the YMCA headquarters as well as several religious shops, followed by a Subways sandwich shop. Going around the corner, there are overpasses that follow the main road to City Hall. I wanted to check out Lotte mall, but they didn’t open until 10:30. Walked instead through the underground mall areas and finally ended up at the City Hall. Beyond the city hall was Deoksugung (Deok-su Palace) http://www.ocp.go.kr/english/palace/pal_dok.html which contained the Royal Museum. A half-dozen school groups were having a school trip to the site – they were so cute! The main palace building were mostly two and three story wooden structures. The Royal Museum had large exhibits on the elaborate Confucian rituals performed by the emperor.
Korea is called “Land of the Morning Calm” (Joseon). In typical understated fashion, it’s because the wind really picks up after about 10 or 11. After getting a 500 ml can of Coke from the vending machine, that was my cue to split for the airport. After taking the subway back to Gimpo, I was doing an imitation of OJ running to the gate in the Avis rent-a-car commercial along the moving walkways. Realizing that there were the sounds of four footsteps, not two, I look around to see another suited Korean with a briefcase doing the exact same thing I was. He kept pace with me for four sets of walkways – about three quarters of a mile — until we got up to the stairs, where I let him pass. I got a ticket for the bus back to Incheon, and made the flight with about 15 minutes to spare. I only regretted not getting any duty-free soju or batteries for my noise-canceling earphones (a big improvement for anyone who flies a lot).
Friday 6 PM Singapore
The flight from Korea to Singapore was relatively uneventful. I had a whole row to myself – I guess that there are not that many people who want to go to Singapore. There were a lot more English speaking types on this trip, and – really unusual – a Caucasian Korean Air stewardess.
YC’s cousin B picked me up from the airport. He’s a fund manager in Singapore; he won’t be able to attend the wedding because he has a business meeting out of the country. We make it to his house, where I get to take a shower. We go out for dumplings at the Eastern & Northern Dumpling Restaurant, 220 East Coast Road. (See picture at http://community.webshots.com/photo/99158408/101001306wSNFVT) The owner is a former China NBA player who has made a second career in the restaurant business. Afterwards, we watched Chinese soap operas for an hour (father turns in his drug addict son to the police, then has a heart attack as the two other sons fight it out over an ex-prostitute girlfriend). We go to Golden Mile mall to pick up the Grassland Express bus to Ipoh at 10 PM.
Saturday, August 28
Sometime along the way we make a rest stop. Along the two lane north-south highway there are dozens of these 24 hour open-air visitor centers where a variety of local food favorites are available. Bus rest stops apparently can be for more than an hour depending on the mood of the driver. Once we get back on the road, it starts raining like there’s no tomorrow. The bus driver apparently agrees, because he’s not stopping for anything. There have been many reports about bus drivers wiping out on this highway, and I’m really hoping that this isn’t one of them. We end up watching this Hong Kong B movie. It is so much a b movie, that is isn’t even a cop comedy, but a mall security guard comedy.
We get in to Ipoh at 5:30 in the morning, a hour ahead of schedule. Aunt Chu panics and gets a taxi to the house instead of waiting for the ride to pick us up. My cell phone doesn’t work – it doesn’t accept service from the two networks in town. Turns out that the reception party had already left by the time we get to the house. We manage to wake up YC’s mom to open the door. After some confusion, I hang out with YC in the family’s kitchen, while the aunt and the taxi driver return to the bus stop to retrieve the greeting party.
We had our first breakfast at about 8 in the morning at a hawkers center called Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, 75 Leech Street/Jalan Bandar Timah. Apparently this place has been there for over 50 years. The most memorable selections were the chicken liver satay, in addition to roti canai, and mee fun soup. Diagonally across the street, we went to Restoran Sin Lean Lee for “Golden Mee” (basically noodles with scrambled egg fried on top) and fish balls (so much better fresh rather than the frozen ones).
For lunch, we went to the Medan Selera Stadium for Indian food – a selection of curries, followed by Ice Kacang (shaved ice with goodies). We went to Rome Tailors to checkout how YC’s suit was coming along, and I got measured for one too. For dinner, we went to Yum Yum Restaurant at 5 Persiaran Greenhill, 30450 Ipoh for YC’s mom’s birthday. Prior to the dinner YC, B- and I went to get a mango crème cake at the bakery next door.
Sunday, August 29
The next morning, YC and B- had hired a driver and van to go to KL to pick up folks from KLIA airport. B- said I ought to get a haircut while she had her nails done, so YC and I went to the mall to buy prepaid sim cards for our phones while she was at the beauty parlor. AS showed up on time at 1 PM. We made a dash to the Petronas Twin Towers and the KLCC mall there. Picked up some Roti-Boy buns, coated with butter and coffee flavor. It’s something like the Krispy Kreme donut experience. We then looked at the computer/electronics floor until it was time to return to the airport to pick up N, M and H. On the way back we dropped by the KFC to try out the Satay Burger, a coated chicken breast covered with peanut satay sauce. Not bad. We all stopped off at the Hotel Excelsior to check in.
Later on, AS wanted to find some beer, so we followed the thumping beats down the street from the hotel entrance to a disco. Imagine a White Castle with neon and flashing lights. We try to peak into the disco, expecting a happening crowd. It was the exact opposite – it was completely empty except for the DJ. So, we went to the bar next door and got a bucket of Carlsburg, which is apparently the strongest thing that you could get in Ipoh.