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Tea & Strawberries in the Cameron Highlands

Abandoned Van With Vines GrowingWith a minimum five business days to kill in Malaysia as we waited for our India Visa, we were delighted to escape the sweltering heat in Southeast Asia. Our bags stowed below the crowded bus, we headed for the Cameron Highlands. The trek did not start so well as ten minutes outside Kuala Lumpur, the bus driver dealt with a blown tire. One hour stranded on the median and four more climbing green hills, we were nestled 5,000 feet above sea level (highest spot in peninsular Malaysia). The cool temperature hit us with a breath of fresh air. Literally.

Adjacent to KRS Pines Hostel ($6 per night), we watched young girls scrub clothing in the shadows of a crumbling home in the mountain town of Tanah Rata. This scene exemplified the economic reality of the Malaysian tea plantation area in the Cameron Highlands. As tourism increases in the region, the standard of living is modestly increasing, but for most rural citizens their fate is sealed in tea. Ash grew tired of this socio-economic talk, so we negotiated a seat in an 1950s Mercedes taxi and arrived at BOH Tea Plantation. On cue, Nore gathered all five English speaking tourists for a quick tour of the tea production area. Always amazed at the new things we learn each day, Ash and I listened intently as Nore revealed the production process from tea tree to potent potable. Over BOH’s dazzling tea tasting veranda showcasing the rolling hills of pruned tea trees, Ash and I whet our whistles on some dang good tea.

Ash Amidst the Pruned Tea Trees Hills of Pruned Tea Trees Boh Tea Plantation Tea Trees

Ten miles from Tanah Rata, our feet had many steps ahead of them to get back to town. The first half was simply beautiful among the rolling hills of tea trees. From a distance, the evenly beveled green landscape looks magnificently manicured, almost perfect. But once you get right up to the living trees that look more like shrubs, you understand how unique each tea plant can be. Some have a thick trunk while others channeled Medusa’s wild hair. Near the exit of BOH Tea Plantation, we passed the small village where every worker and their family sleeps, attends school, and dines.

Tea Leaf Picker

Ash Hamming It UpSadly, once away from the acres of tea trees, our focus was to avoid becoming road kill for the trucks ravaging the mountain road. We found respite at The Big Red Strawberry Farm. Think of a strawberry product and it is either produced or sold here. Admittedly, I went a bit overboard on the food: strawberry waffles, strawberry muffin, strawberry smoothie, strawberry cheesecake, etc. Ash was not innocent either after she loaded up on heaps of strawberry candy. Even the sidewalks had strawberries etched in them. Oh, and there were the greenhouses upon greenhouses growing the red devils. A unique place to say the least.

Strawberry Waffles with Ice Cream Big Red Strawberry Farm Strawberry Cheesecake

The Cameron Highlands were quite the departure from Malaysia’s bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur. A break from the heat coupled with ample amounts of tea and strawberries hit the spot.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) We wanted to hike to BOH Tea Plantation from Tanah Rata through the forest and woke up early to do so. However, after consulting with the hostel operator and others in town, we were strongly advised not to trek without a guide. Be careful when in new territory as it can be easy to get lost amidst poorly marked trails.

3… 2… 1… Action: Penang Island, Malaysia

Situated in the Strait of Malacca, Penang Island offers fish spas, round the clock religious celebrations, temples, and terrible live music.

Watch Ashley squirm at a beachside “spa” as the yam-yam-yam fish feast on her feet:

Now it is my turn with the flesh eating monsters:

Listen and watch a unique wake up call in Malaysia:

Take a peak inside the Kek Lok Si Temple:

Ash and I were not surprisingly the only paying patrons listening to Malaysia’s Elton John and his sick band, Third Dimension:

- Greg and Ash

3… 2… 1… Action: Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur offers a mix of unique religious spectacles and gleaming skyscrapers.  See for yourself in the short videos below.

270+ stairs to reach the Batu Caves entrance, but first we are received by the massive golden Magura Statue:

One of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers do not disappoint. See them in all their majesty in the video below:

Now check out the view from the 41st Floor Sky Bridge:

Nightfall offers a wholly different experience of the Petronas Towers, particularly from the Trader’s Hotel Sky Bar. Complete with overpriced cocktails and rooftop swimming pool:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Typical backpacker threads are not always welcome in swanky locales. Check dress codes online before making the trip to some ritzy venue. Ash has several suitable dresses for such occasions and rocks flip flops. My zip-on pant legs and hiking shoes have passed muster so far.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Creek GraffitiOur blood was boiling as 6:30am came and went. Dawn’s searing heat welcomed us to Singapore’s Depression era Tanjong Pagar Railway Station bound for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. First impressions are not always correct, thank goodness. The rusty, dated international train was not a sauna on rails as its fledgling air conditioner fought bravely. Ash fell into a deep slumber as I passed the seven hour train ride watching the Malaysian countryside race by with occasional stops at rural villages. The modern Kuala Lumpur rail station welcomed us, but where was Customs? Not at the train depot. Entering Malaysia illegally proved unproblematic when two weeks later en route to Thiruvananthapuram, India, the Malaysian Customs Agent kindly backdated our visa stamps. Crisis averted.

Ash Loves Indian NaanAfter settling into our surprisingly cheap hotel, both of us were jolted to attention by a loudspeaker blaring Arabic prayers. Maybe our lodging was heavily discounted due to its location next to the active mosque. On cue each morning before sunrise, the Muslim prayers were broadcast for all to hear and then four more times daily. Coming from America where the media instills fear in every Westerner’s heart when we see Islamic men or women, Ash and I were admittedly nervous during our first stroll through KL’s Masjid Jamek district. Fully veiled women strolled the narrow streets and men sporting traditional Islamic threads laughed together. The scene was similar to a Saturday morning in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, albeit with different dress. But it was one of those moments we yearned for on our adventure around the world. To contest deeply held instincts that are utterly incorrect. We discussed the uncomfortable intuitive feelings that only our eyes had shared minutes earlier over a delicious street bazaar lunch where we fell in love with the Indian delight of naan. Experiences like these have strengthened our relationship, to be certain.

Do You Understand "Just A Little Off The Top?"Anxious to explore Kuala Lumpur with our Salomon TrailRunners firmly strapped to our feet, we hit the winding streets. But not before our first of three visits to the Indian Visa Center… that is a whole other story. In KL’s Bukit Bingtang district on a rainy night we indulged in a sushi train and polished off a respectable 14 dishes of raw fish. While in Masjid Jamek, our infatuation with street markets was born. Aimlessly wandering the Times Square district, we crossed a pedestrian bridge jammed with hurried shoppers. On this bridge is where my first haircut in over five months took place, unexpectedly. My buzzed head had grown much like a Chia Pet… water twice daily and watch it bust out of control. The strange fellow at Speedy Cuts whose command of the English language was similar to Ashley’s miniature yorkshire terrier, Gidget, made quick work of my mop. Scissors blazing, the young barber removed what seemed like pounds of hair. I was free once more! We woke early the next day and quickly made our way to Sid’s Pub via Kuala Lumpur’s tremendous rapid transit system. Why would we be drinking Tiger Beer at 7:30am with sailors from the American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in port nearby? To watch commercial repeat after repeat for the hit television show “Hunting Down Pedophiles” of course. Instead of Betty White getting form tackled in a Snickers ad, that is what we got during Super Bowl XLIV commercial breaks. The second half was entertaining football until Tracy Porter, hailing from my alma mater of Indiana University, took Peyton Manning’s errant pass for a touchdown.

Sushi Train Superbowl Commercial at Sid's Bukit Bintang Wildlife

Murugan StatueWe had seen the city, but what about the countryside? Our white skin sticking out like a sore thumb, we were aboard the train towards the Batu Caves, just outside KL. A friendly Malay-Indian suggested we follow him and his daughter to the bus stop for a cheap fare to the Hindu shrine before certainly being ripped off by a taxi driver. Not soon after disembarking from the sweltering autobus, the murugan statue came into focus even though we were a 20 minute walk away. The hulking gold painted sculpture dwarfed the 272 step staircase immediately adjacent. Reaching the limestone cave’s entrance is not for the faint of heart. Though religious duty seemingly will overcome a Hindu’s physical limitation as evidenced by the resilient woman whom toiled at least one hour climbing the daunting stairs. The caves themselves were impressive on their own and enjoyable to explore despite reeking of monkey, chicken, and feline urine. However, our most lasting impression were the Hindu services taking place at various temples built amongst the caverns. Our knee pits brimming with sweat (a South East Asia tradition it seems), Ash bought a strange orange drink from a street hawker outside the Batu Caves that was laced with enough pure sugar to raise the dead.

Devoted Hindu Muguran Gold Face

Singapore broke us into South East Asia. But Kuala Lumpur pulled back the curtain on what it is all about. A region of dichotomy: religious culture among Western ideals, upscale dining abutting street stalls, and traditional mosques beneath skyscrapers.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Photography, while in most cases is quite alright, is not always acceptable. People wearing traditional dress in particular don’t necessarily like being caught on film. In those situations, try our tried and true method. I have Ashley move ahead of me by ten paces and then fake pose for a picture while I train the camera lense just beyond her.

2) America is blessed with air conditioning at every turn. Not so much in the rest of the world. There is no silver bullet to staying cool other than getting after it early in the morning (Ash forbids me from wearing my hat outfitted with a misting bottle on the brim). Acceptance is the key. Just know you will bake and seek shade at all costs.

Malaysia’s Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers SkybridgeEveryone’s favorite British, err, Scottish actor, Sir Sean Connery brought Western acclaim to the towers in Entrapment. Perhaps the world’s most recognizable twin towers after New York City’s late World Trade Center, the Petronas Towers demand notice in Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. Bukit Bintang, Masjid Jamek, Tuanku Abdul Rahman; no matter where we ventured the steel and glass icons were always within sight. After seven grueling years of construction, the Petronas Towers were introduced to a world audience in 1998 and were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 when Taiwan’s Taipei was completed.

Petronas Towers At Dawn Petronas Towers View From Underneath

Petronas Towers from Masjid JamekAsh preferred a scheduled morning conversation with her Mom over sitting in a basement lobby with hundreds of others waiting for tickets to the skybridge. So on the tile floor, I read the Pulitzer winning Angela’s Ashes for ninety minutes then secured a ticket up to the 41st floor glass expanse. With another ninety minutes to kill, I surveyed the beautiful structures from several aspects: underneath, between my legs, through trees, or our camera’s zoom. I was awestruck. The double decker bridge seems to connect architectural brilliance. The shape of the Petronas Towers creates a menagerie of shapes, slants, and shadows that is pleasurable to the eye. If that weren’t enough, the shape of each tower resembles the Islamic Rub el Hizb, and eight-pointed star. Malaysia’s national oil and gas company’s namesake certainly hit a homerun with their headquarters. Finally, 10:00am rolled around and I stood among other giddy tourists in the freight elevator up to the skybridge. The bridge’s design invites much daylight and invokes a feeling that one can reach from one tower to the next. From this vantage point, you are provided an intimate opportunity to investigate the intricate design of each skyscraper. Looking down, I easily spotted the comfortable park from which I admired the buildings moments before. My fifteen minutes on the skybridge were up in a flash and I discovered no suitable hiding places. Kicking and screaming, I was shuffled back into the dull freight lift.

Skybridge View From Skybridge

Petronas Towers from Sky Bar at Traders HotelSpending time between the steel and glass was certainly worth the wait. However, the real majesty of the Petronas Towers is seen best from afar. I arrived back at the small 27th floor apartment we had rented dripping with sweat after a leisurely walk singing the tower’s praises. As the sun retired for the day, Ash and I morphed from disheveled backpackers into your average tourists as we readied for a night out in a swanky hotel bar. Ash looked like a million bucks, as always, and I debuted my latest garment, a short sleeve collared shirt. It was a big moment. We waltzed into Trader’s Hotel and clumsily took the express lift to the 33rd floor Sky Bar. Gasping at the price, Ash and I nursed a Kiwi pinot noir and a three olive vodka martini, respectively. After waiting patiently, a two-top became available with a windowless view of the Petronas Towers. Tapping our feet to the rhythmic house music, an even better vantage point on a plush couch was vacated by some Euro hipsters. The drinks and setting were top notch, yet the Petronas Towers was this evening’s MC. Once again, the detailed creators knocked the ball out of the park with artistic lighting. Contrasting magnificently with the sky’s black veil, the towers were nothing short of stunning. Precisely at midnight, the glistening white lights switched off starting from the lightning rod capped pinnacles to the shared base. It was reminiscent of the Times Square new year’s eve countdown.

A Costly Vodka Martini Skybridge at Night Ash Loves Her Some Pinot

Malaysia continues to search for an identity among other developing South East Asia countries. In today’s world of bigger, taller, and risque skyscrapers, Kuala Lumpur’s skyline is blessed with the Petronas Towers. It justly targets its place in tall building conversations while marrying function with flash.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Petronas Towers skybridge passes are free, first come, first serve (1,700 people per day). Get to the towers early in the morning and bring a book for the inevitable wait. Depending on your position in line, you choose a 15 minute time slot. I had to wait 1 1/2 hours, which was easily passed walking around the structures and being fascinated by the info center in the base of the towers.

2) Some people were cursing the Petronas Towers skybridge as a waste of time, while others, like myself, reveled in getting closer to the icons. If a panoramic view of Kuala Lumpur is what you are solely after, visit the KL Tower. However, if you are remotely interested in architecture or find the towers enchanting, get your behind out of bed early and get in line.

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