Monday, December 18, 2006
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Troy and I have managed to tackle a lot of Asian cities, but one that we had yet to visit was Kuala Lumpur. The most recognizable landmark that defines KL is the Petronas Towers. These are the world’s tallest twin towers and second tallest building behind Taiwan's Taipei 101 tower. We didn't know what to expect of KL. We certainly didn't have our hopes up. We expected it to have a pinch of cultural diversification, a heaping spoonful of Muslims and a huge dollop of boring right out of a big jar of Singapore. We were very wrong. We actually liked it so much that we decided we could live there if it wasn't for such bad traffic and it being bloody hot all year long. (Did I just say "bloody hot"? Good grief, I've been hanging out with my British friends too much.)
KL only has 2 million people. Yes, only 2 million. I know that sounds like a lot, but compared to HK, it's not. I was amazed at how quickly you could escape the city to get to the incredibly gorgeous jungle. The other thing Troy and I liked about KL is that since it has space to expand, there were a lot of outdoor eating and entertaining areas. HK has like two. Seriously, HK is so packed for space that it is very difficult to find outdoor restaurants. Now if you are a shopaholic KL is the place to be. Troy and I...not so much the shopaholics. Although while hanging out in the mall I did find myself fascinated by the Muslim woman at Starbucks who was wearing the traditional black robe and a full face veil (or niqab) - btw, in KL most Muslim women only where a hijab covering their hair and neck. I wanted to know how she drank her coffee without taking off her veil in public. After subtly staring at her (is there such a thing?) I found she doesn't take it off. I would sure like to watch her eat BBQ ribs though. Oh wait, that's pork - that's a no no.
Being in KL around the holidays was a little strange. Outside of the fact that it was 90 degrees in mid December, it was astonishing that a city that is predominately Muslim actually participates in Christmas activities. I don't know if it was the surprise of seeing manger scenes in public areas, Middle East sheiks standing in front of a Christmas tree, or the fake falling snow made out of soap (actually looked pretty real). I don't know who I felt sadder for: the Muslim city residents that have to tolerate this holiday or the poor bastard that has to continuously mop up the soap snow from the mall floor.
We did struggle to find things to do outside of shopping. One place we did get to visit was an elephant sanctuary. At the moment they have 11 elephants here. Some are working elephants that are used to help relocate elephants that cause problems on farmers’ land, while the young ones are being rehabilitated to hopefully return to the wild. They had a baby elephant that was a month old. They only had her a week and she was very skinny because her mother abandoned her. Luckily the sanctuary found her before poachers did. She was so tiny but made an enormous amount of noise. Troy was able to get close enough to her in her cage where she proceeded to suck his thumb. One activity visitors could participate in was bathing the elephants. Sounds straight forward enough, right? What actually happened wasn't even close to giving an elephant a bath. We stood on a wooden platform next to a river while the elephant that is in the water walked close enough for you to climb on him. He then walked into the river a few yards and dumped you! It was quite fun as long as you managed to not get stuck under the elephant as he went down. We met two guys from Atlanta who were the definitive embarrassing Americans (we have come across some real winners "Scuse me! Do you speak American?") - they insisted on wearing red Santa hats for their "bath" with the elephant.
We also visited the Batu Caves which is the holiest Hindu site in Malaysia. Once a year over a million Hindus attend a festival here called Thaipusan. Hindus from all over the world make the pilgrimage here for the event. During the festival, Hindus follow a route to the caves while engaging in various acts of devotion. Some acts are as simple as carrying a pot of milk while others go to the extreme of piercing their skin, checks and tongues with skewers. Even though this would be an amazing festival to witness, I don't think I could handle being in the midst of a million very smelly Hindu Indians.
Link to Reference
Friday, October 27, 2006
How many Maldivians does it take to find a night dive site?
Since November is our 10 year wedding anniversary Troy and I decided to treat ourselves to something nice for a change. After all we have done zilch, gone nowhere and experienced nothing in the past 2 years. Oh wait, that was a previous life! Anyway... for our anniversary we went to the Maldives for a week of diving on a liveaboard boat. For those geography freaks and people that like meaningless facts floating around their head, the Maldives is an island nation made up of 26 atolls located off the southwest tip of India. It is directly west of Sri Lanka. An atoll is a ring shaped coral reef or a string of closely spaced coral islands enclosing a shallow lagoon. The Maldives is an absolutely beautiful place. It holds the world record for being the flattest place on earth with the highest elevation of 10'. We have read several articles that have said if global warming keeps at it's current rate, all of Maldives will be under water in 10 years. I guess it's a good thing we got there when we did.
The islands of the Maldives are tiny, tiny, tiny. It is one of those places where there is not much to do but dive, sleep, spa, snorkel, walk around a tiny island in 7 minutes and drink (of course). There is no hiking, renting a car and exploring the island or going to the local market for shopping. So being on a liveaboard was the best way to experience the place because we were not stuck on one tiny island the whole time.
Troy and I both agreed this is probably some of the best diving we have ever done. Since there are strict fishing regulations and most of the area is a marine protected environment, there were just tons of fish on most of our dives. There were some dives that we would be right on the edge of a huge school that consisted of thousands and thousands of 4-7" long fish. Something would spook them and they would suddenly swim left then right then left again and it was like "ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM!!!!!" You could feel and even hear the sudden rush of their movements. It left you thinking "What the hell was that?" It was quite freaky and is one of those things that can't be described very well.
Our last diving trip to Myanmar was our first experience with Manta Rays. We were so excited to see 2 Mantas is 30' visibility of water. But the Maldives proved to be better then that. One day our boat was in an area where we were surrounded by them. Troy, me and another guy jumped in our dinghy (a dinghy is a small boat, not a ditzy girl) and had a crew member take us to where there were 10 Mantas slowly circling on the surface. We snorkeled with them for about 20 minutes before the Manta's took off. This was very exciting because they were right on the surface so the visibility was amazing. Because we were snorkeling instead of diving Troy could actually growl at me me to "Stop touching them!" instead of making menacing sounds through his regulator while diving.
We also finally saw whale sharks as well! We actually took these photos as opposed to past blogs where we used someone else's pictures. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean (whales are mammals) and can measure over 30' in length and weigh several tons. They feed on plankton so they are completely harmless to people. As we're heading to a dive site our guide saw one a short distance from the boat. We all scrambled for our fins and snorkels and jumped in. We were able to snorkel with it for about a minute or two before it dropped to deeper water. An Italian guy in our group didn't see it and me, being the polite person I am, said (actually yelled) "You didn't see it? How did you not see it? It was right there!" (I'm such a kind person.) We came across another whale shark a few days later and the Italian saw it so lucky for him I didn't have to yell at him again.
About the only disappointing thing on this trip was we were only allowed to do 3 dives a day. For most liveaboards, divers have the option of doing up to 5 dives a day. We thought it was a regulation but we quickly found out that it is just the choice the dive boats make. So needless to say, we had a lot of downtime on the boat. Because we could only do 3 dives we were given the option of only one night dive. Even though it was just one night dive, it was by far the best night dive we have ever done and actually had our adrenaline cranked up a few notches. But before it could get good, it had to be frustrating first. Meaning that our dive guides couldn't find the dive sight. It's pitch black, way past sunset and after searching for 20 minutes for the dive site, our guides realize the batteries in the GPS are dead. So they proceeded to search for the reef with a flashlight. It's kind of like searching for a needle in a haystack... at night!
We finally found the sight and was very excited to see all the animals were out feeding. Sharks, eels and the biggest Barracuda we have ever seen. They normally measure about 2-3', but this one was about 6'. Fellow divers, I know you think I'm lying but I swear he was huge!!! Baracuda's are scary enough as it is, but to do a night dive with a 6' mother is something else. Troy and I came across an area in the coral wall where 3 eels were feeding. Normally they are tucked away and all you see is their head. These guys were out swimming around and trying to grab fish. We have never seen anything like this so we hung out to watch how they feed as well as watching the occasional reef shark swim by. As we're watching, one eel lightning quick grabbed a fish but was not able to get the whole thing in his mouth so there is this mangled fish just hanging out. All of a sudden here comes this shark, excited by the smell of blood. He starts swimming these frantic circles around us and the dead fish trying to find the source of blood. I refused to leave Troy's side and had a death grip on his arm. In the meantime there goes the 6' Barracuda wondering what all the commotion is about. We were both a little freaked out, not knowing what was going to be coming at us from which angle.
The Maldives is mainly Muslim and while we were there it was during Ramadan which is a time for the Muslims to concentrate on their faith and to fast for a month. A few nights Troy and I slept on the top deck of the boat for a few reasons: the lounge cushions were more comfortable then our bed, the constant noise of the boat generator was annoying and the Maldives have about a gajillion stars whereas Hong Kong has six! It was very nice and relaxing until 4am came and we could hear the call to prayer that was being blasted from a speaker on a nearby island.
Click on the link below for more photos.
Link to Reference
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
My flag pole is bigger then your flag pole!
One of the downsides to living in HK, is that our friends are in constant rotation. The half-life of an expat here is about 1 year. As soon as we make friends with someone, they move onto a new city. This past weekend I went to Seoul, Korea to visit one of these rotated friends, Jill.
Seoul was a little quirky and a little on the boring side. It's sprawled out so it didn't have an exciting skyline. It's also horribly expensive. A Starbucks coffee is about 3x what you would pay in the states and a small can of deodorant (because I forgot mine) was $8. They're food tastes all the same because they put chili paste in everything but they have the biggest dumplings I have ever seen. They also use the word "fucking" when naming their stores.
A few strange things I saw while wandering around the city was a Barbie exhibit at the Korean War Memorial Museum. What's up with that?!? I don't remember "soldier" being one of her multiple personalities. Another strange thing is hospitals allow their patients to wander off the property while recovering. It's a little weird going into a bakery and standing next to you is a guy dressed in his hospital jammies and slippers while carrying his IV bottle.
There have been things that Troy and I have come across while traveling around Asia that would never, ever be allowed in the US because everyone is afraid of being sued. For instance, being allowed off hospital property while recooperating. Other examples include wandering around a factory at your own free will with no safety zone to follow, firing AK-47's and going to a closed ended canyon with un-caged, un-leashed tigers is just to name a few.
The coolest thing I did while in Seoul was go to the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. This is the most heavily fortified border in the world. There is a buffer zone between the two countries that extends for 2km on both sides of the border. This is called the DMZ. For the tour, which was led by US army personnel, the rules were very strict regarding dress code, our conduct and the fact that we could not point, gesture or try to communicate in any way with the North Koreans. I don't now how many times that was told to us. They were serious about the pointing too. On Jill's last trip up, one of the tourists kept pointing until an army soldier threw his ass into the bus. There were areas we were not allowed to photograph and at some places if we wanted to take pictures we had to stand within a "zone" to take the photos. One girl stood outside of the zone and took a picture and a soldier immediately deleted the photos from her camera. This building is in North Korea and the brick line in the rock is the dividing line between two countries.
After arriving at Camp Bonnifis and getting an overview of the Korean War and the DMZ we then signed our life away because we were in an area where "military action could take place at any moment". Camp Bonnifis is a United Nations Command Center and mainly has US and Korean soldiers based here. The ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers were very serious and a little intimidating. Part of their required uniform is very dark sunglasses which is meant for intimidation (which clearly worked). The ROK soldiers based here are considered the best of the best of the Korean Army and are all Tae Kwan Do masters. There was clearly a distinct difference between the attitudes of the ROK and the US army soldiers that was leading the tour. ROK's attitude was basically "Don't f***k with me" while the army guys were like "Hey dude, what's going on!"
When we got to the border, we got out of our buses, walked into a building then out the other side where we then looked straight at North Korea. Opposite us is a similar NK building. Standing on the top step is a NK soldier standing at attention and is wearing what looks like something a general would wear. Behind him is a panel of windows with one panel removed. Behind this removed window you could see a guy sitting there with binoculars watching us. This was where we could not point, gesture or try to communicate in any way with the North Koreans. It was a little weird looking over to them and knowing they are watching our every move. They also had several cameras pointed at us the entire time.
Several buildings straddle the border between the two countries with there also being a distinct line seperating the sides. The main building we went into is where negotiations take place. Two ROK soldiers were stationed in there while we looked around. One blocked the door that leads to NK soil, and the other was stationed at the head of the negotiation table to protect the UN flag. Their stance they took was called a modified Tae Kwan Do stance. Even though they are the good guys, they were still very scary.
Outside of the buildings were 3 more ROK guards. One basically patrolled and watched over everything, while two more were stationed on the corner of the buildings facing NK. They stood half concealed by the building so as to make a smaller target. It is also meant to be more intimidating to NK. They just have that whole intimidation thing down to a science!
The North Koreans are funny, actually I guess it's the government that is funny. Several years ago, SK built a flag pole that was the height of a regular flag pole. NK had to out do it so they built a taller one. Of course SK didn't like this so they built an even taller one. So on and so forth. SK finally said screw this, you can have the biggest flag pole. So now NK has a flag pole that is almost 500' tall and flies a flag that weighs 600 pounds and is over 90' long. Talk about going overboard.
This flag is also in a village named Propaganda village. A few years ago, NK had huge speakers that blared propaganda messages all day and night. This is where the name of the village came from. After SK installed their own speakers blaring their own recordings the two sides came to an agreement and they no longer play the messages anymore. The most interesting thing about this village is that no one lives there. NK built it so that when people visited the DMZ from the south, they would see this village and think that NK was prosperous and that their citizens had nice places to live. When in fact this is no where near the truth. Only a few dozen people maintain the buildings and raise and lower the flag in heavy wind.
Jill is going to Pyongyang (capital of NK) in a few weeks and is going to do the same DMZ tour but from the NK side. I can't wait to hear about it. She said NK has very, very strict rules regarding their behavior there. Such as, whenever they come across a statue of Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il's father) they have to bow. She said there are over 25,000 statues of him so they could be doing a lot of bowing while there.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Hua Hin, Thailand
Once again Troy had to go to Bangkok for work and since I am the definitive expat wife, I was able to join him for a weekend at a beach resort called Hua Hin. We stayed at a place about 30 minutes from the city of Hua Hin so it was very quiet and peaceful around the resort. We only had two days here which was the right amount of time for me. Any longer and I would have been bored. I know, I know... oh boo hoo, I'm on a beach resort in Thailand and I'm complaining about being bored!!!!!
Outside of taking walks, hanging out on the beach and swimming with jellyfish we jumped on the hotel's bicycles and rode around the area. Troy had his new handy, dandy GPS watch with him but it wasn't being very handy since it was not working very well and we were very close to being lost at one point. He says he always knew where we were so I would nod my head and say "Ok, honey!" While riding our bikes we got chased by vicious Thai dogs, got rained on, saw cows with the biggest ears imaginable and got yelled at by an old nun because we were trespassing on her property.
One night at dinner we sat near an American couple who was staying at a resort down the road from our hotel. During our conversation with them we came to find out they live in Bangkok and she works as a teacher at the same school that Mark Karr (dumbass who claimed to kill Jon Benet Ramsey) worked at when he was arrested. She said he was very creepy. She also said at one of the teacher meetings each teacher had to volunteer to head up a club or sport involving the students. Mark Karr wanted to create a swimming club for 6-8 year olds. Nice. That whole incident with him made the front page of the HK newspaper. I think the only reason why is because he was arrested in Bangkok. I think if he had been arrested in Idaho we would have never found out about it.
Our last night in Bangkok was spent shopping and having dinner at an open air market down the road from our hotel. Gotta love beer, pizza and a Thai rock group singing Barry Manilow cover tunes on the stage!
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Holy cow, is that a big snake or what???
If you are faithful blog readers, you would have read the blog I posted a few weeks back regarding the Burmese Python that killed a Husky dog while out hiking with it's owner (the dog was hiking, not the snake.)
Troy and I were hiking last weekend with our friends when we walked around a corner and came upon a Chinese man who had stopped and was taking pictures of something next to the path. He immediately motioned for us to stop and to be quiet. He then pointed to what he was taking pictures of. At first we couldn't tell what he was showing us but then we saw it... it was a 8' python snake with the head as big as a a man's hand!!!!! No one was actually willing to put their hand next to the snake to get a size comparison, but it was huge! I can't imagine it was the same snake that killed the dog because we were at least 20 miles from where that happened (remember we said it had never been scientifically proven that snakes can actually move). So it makes me wonder how many of these pythons are in HK.
After half of us peed our pants we then calmed down enough to get a closer look. His head was right next to the path and the front part of him was coiled up so we didn't dare walk past him. I don't know if pythons strike like rattlesnakes but none of us were willing to find out.
The Chinese man in his broken English then told us he wanted a phone to call the police.
"You, have phone, I call police. They come. Help us. They take snake." (Don't you love my Chinese accent?)
He then called the police and had a long, extensive conversation with them. When he was done, he gave the phone back and said:
"Police come, you wait here, you no pass. Other hikers come, busy Saturday. You stop them, very dangerous. Wait here, 10, 20 minute. I come, police. Here take, protect you, very dangerous!" as he hands us a rusted, dull machete that he had found somewhere along the path. He then ran off to the village we had just walked through to meet the police.
So we're standing there trying to figure out why the snake is not moving. Is it sick? Did it fall from a tree and is hurt? Did it just eat a small child and is now digesting it? Why is his body shaped so funny? Is that a head protruding from his stomach? A few of us got braver and moved in closer. Believe it or not, I was one of the brave ones until it started to move causing me scream like the girl I am. We just couldn't figure out why it wasn't moving with 8 of us hovering around it. One of the guys with us finally lifted the bush covering the back part of his body to see how big he was. That was when the snake decided he had enough of us and moved off.
I can imagine the Chinese man was very disappointed when he came back and the snake was gone. Hopefully the police wouldn't arrest him and throw him in jail on charges that he made up the story (they've done crazier things).