Selemat Hari Merdeka !!
For those unfamiliar, today is the 58th anniversary of Malaysian Independence. It’s a national holiday but not quite as crowded in our little tourist town as Hari Raya (the end of Ramadan). Generally speaking, expats should steer clear of local politics but I feel it’s appropriate to wish Malaysian a happy day and hope they all put aside the many challenges facing their nation for one day and focus on all the positive things that make this multi-cultural nation worth living in. Having said that, I’ll return to our KL Summer Vacation trip that was actually to complete our MM2H visa, allowing us ten years of unlimited entry and exit in this great place. Haze notwithstanding; that’s the one real downer for me and makes me too aggravated at politicians to bother complaining about it. Let’s just say “fully developed” status (sans China) will never be granted in a place that exposes 29 million citizens to unhealthy levels of toxic ash annually for eight straight weeks while its neighbor engages in illegal burning of its forests for financial convenience.
Thinking my last post describing Kuala Lumpur as an indoor paradise may have sounded a bit harsh, I figured I should clarify. Not necessarily a negative thing, my comments were just observations based on our lifestyle choices and since we don’t need a big city for work, Penang happens to work better for us. In fairness, there were many times we came across new and interesting items while strolling the endless maze of malls, shops and eateries. Often wishing Penang had the space or customer base to accommodate such incredible stores as we saw in KL, we thoroughly enjoyed browsing through them all and often wound up sampling foods, buying stuff we had room for in our small travel bags and constantly posting picture on Facebook, hoping our Asian born friends might shed some light. Possibly the biggest and most amazing mega-stores is Isetan. Founded in 1886, this Tokyo based superstore is so immense, it needs space on six different floors of the mall to display everything it sells, including an enormous market dedicated to food.
Citing examples of stuff totally new to us, here’s some veggies we found and either hadn’t seen them or had no clue what they were:
Having never seen a store with such an extensive display of veggies, fruits and take away fresh items like amazingly inexpensive and fresh sushi, a salad bar with three kinds of Japanese mushroom salads and standard Malaysian fare like Nasi Kandar, we couldn’t curb our fascination with the variety. Here’s some blueberries from Poland. Who knew they grew blueberries?
Knowing there’s many varieties of mangoes in the world, it’s ridiculous that all we ever got at Safeway was the same one and it was usually too expensive to be practical, not to mention having sat on the shelf for months. Isetan carried types we’d never seen before and it was so big they were individually wrapped like apple-pears are in the USA. Even funnier was a package of grapes from California that was labeled Witch Fingers and they were shaped differently than anything I’d ever seen in 25 years of California living. Naturally, even using the old 3.7613 conversion rate that we’re stuck with for our first few months, they cost less than all the locally grown grapes sold in any farmers market or supermarket in California. And that’s after travelling 7,000 miles on a container ship. What’s wrong with that picture?
Being Malaysia, the alcoholic beverage section of the store carrying fine wines from all over the word is hidden way in the back corner of an entrance hardly frequented by anyone due to its lack of proximity to anything other than another long corridor leading somewhere else in IndoorLand. Perhaps this a good thing given the sin tax imposed on those wishing to enjoy some vino with the 47 types of cheese sold in their wonderfully European looking deli department. Initially delighted to find our familiar Napa Valley wines for the first time since leaving The Bay Area, anticipation faded quickly when we learned that a bottle of Robert Mondavi that sells for about $10 USD at any Trader Joe’s comes to $43.07 after the “shame on you for drinking penalty” that makes wine prices unreasonable in a Muslim country. But we knew this and weren’t really that disappointed because an alcohol free lifestyle is much healthier anyway. Sorry, France.
In Penang stores you can find crazily priced Japanese fruit that have astronomical price tags attached to them simply because they’re trendy and not necessarily due to scarcity or quality. (I know this because my resident expert on all things Japanese posed the question to all his connections living in Japan). Amazingly, Isetan even lets you sample a $12 Japanese peach. As expected, it tasted like any average piece of fruit.
Malaysia wouldn’t be Malaysia without its cornucopia of signage that appears strange to Westerners unfamiliar with Asian customs, brands and protocol. Even in upscale KL, we still found what appeared to be obvious like signs instructing customers to place rubbish in the bin provided. Where else would you put it? (Actually, that’s a dumb question by me given that San Francisco is the dirtiest city in America and stinks from urine and feces due to the city’s inability to deal with its homeless problem).
After hours in Isetan, we ventured out to another part of whatever mall we were in and found other awesome items that I hadn’t seen in Penang including imported nuts from Iran (superior taste and quality), some sort of layered cheese pastry cake that looked good but didn’t meet expectations and the world’s most incredibly tasting milk shale that I imagined tasted like one of those mind-blowing calorie filled gut busters that Australians call “thick shakes“. Thankful we don’t have a Once Upon a MIlk Shake in Penang, this dessert was too tempting to pass up.
Reiterating one difference between Malaysia’s subway stations and the corridors that connect different lines and the obsolete and filthy stations that make San Francisco an eyesore for anyone unlucky enough to wait for a BART or MUNI train, note the spotless condition of the hallway. Unlike filthy graffiti, beautiful murals adorn the halls making an interesting site for those unfamiliar with public art. However, we’re quite confused what Malaysian can possibly afford condos that start at 2,682,88 ringgit as advertised all over the city’s train stations. Especially since they’re promoting Putrajaya, the nation’s government center, it seems highly unlikely anyone except high-ranking government officials can spare almost $700,000 USD to live in a planned city that shuts down at 5 PM, doesn’t have one shopping mall and offers little incentives for foreigners that might actually be interested in investment property.
Despite the haze, Diane and I plan on spending the day relaxing along the beach (if the rain holds out). Not as crazy as the last long weekend, there are lots of visitors in Batu Ferrenghi on long weekends but we don’t mind. Unlike American holidays, the interesting part is how the roads into town begin jamming up somewhere around sunset and continue as a bumper to bumper traffic jam until after 11 PM. With one way in and out, we never leave town during long weekends and usually enjoy the infinity pool but the weather isn’t exactly cooperating this time.
Given there’s almost nowhere to park in our town, we’re unclear where they all go but fireworks will light up the sky tonight at midnight and I suppose they all turn around and go back home when the hawkers begin rolling their carts down the street and heading home. Grateful to be in this beautiful multicultural nation where tolerance is more important than an antiquated constitutional amendment misconstrued as a right to own a weapon, we’ll take the inconveniences, annual dose of burning ashes and affordable lifestyle any day over our suburban Bay Area house any time. Cheers !!
Next: More on our KL trip including the silliest merchandise in Malaysia.