I added a new feature with this blog entry. I put a photo gallery at the end of the post. Otherwise when we have a lot of pictures, I have to use that old Family Photos format. I did that over a year ago. Time for something else.
After Tim left, we had a public holiday coming up in Singapore on May 31. This is Vesak Day, a Buddhist holiday which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Gautama Buddha. The date of Vesak is the first full moon in the fourth month of the Chinese calendar (which is a lunar calendar) so it's date on the Western calendar varies year to year, falling on the first full moon in May. It's similar to the Christian holiday of Easter, the date of which also depends on the full moon. But this year was a problem, because there was a blue moon in May. Ok, no peeking below - raise your hand if you know what a blue moon is? You've all heard the expression "once in a blue moon". A blue moon is the second full moon that occurs within a month. Since there were two full moons in May this year, some countries celebrated Vesak Day on May 1 (like Malaysia) and others on May 31 (like Singapore) which was a Thursday. Only in the US are all holidays "snapped to grid" so that they are on Mondays to make a three day weekend. But it worked in our favor since we were making our travel arrangements late. We went from Tuesday through Saturday, while most people from Singapore would be traveling Wednesday and Sunday.
We decided to go to the island of Landgkawi. It's part of Malaysia. The island is off the west coast of the Malay peninsula in the Andaman Sea. Or maybe in the Straits of Malacca. Since the Andaman Sea narrows into the Straits, there isn't a hard and fast boundary. And that's just about where Langkawi is.
It's actually an archipelago consisting of 99 islands. There is one main island where just about everyone lives. Two or three others have small resorts on them. The rest are uninhabited. Many of the islands are set aside as a marine preserve. But the diving isn't that great because the visibility in the Straits of Malacca is quite poor. It's much better on the eastern side of the Malay peninsula, or in the islands of Indonesia, or in the Andaman Sea. But the island has lots of beaches, isn't heavily developed, and was supposed to be very pretty. So I did a lot of shopping on the web for a place to stay. This was a little bit of a challenge as there was a range of resorts from really cheap (only a few dollars a day) to really expensive (over $500 a day). The trick was to find just the right price/niceness point. I ended up booking us into the Pelangi Resort and Spa. Pelangi by the way is Malay for rainbow. The resort is part of the Meritous chain and looked pretty good from its website and was mentioned favorably in the user writeups I could find. And Sandy and Shannon were ok with the "and Spa" part. They spent several hours there one afternoon getting massages and various beauty treatments. That's the afternoon I went tshirt shopping.
The flight there was just under an hour. The island had a nice new airport. Malaysia is really trying to promote tourism on the island in conjunction with their big "Visit Malaysia in 2007" campaign they are running. It is the fiftieth anniversary of their independence from Britain this year. We got through immigration and customs in just a few minutes and got our luggage quickly. We had to wait a while for another group that was going to our hotel, but then it was an easy ten minute ride from the airport to the resort. We were checked in and inside our rooms less than an hour after landing. This was quite a contrast from the trip to Phuket that Sandy and I made earlier in the year. There the airport was an ordeal that took hours and the ride to our hotel was truely frightening.
It turned out we chose well. The resort was very nice. It had a large covered but open air lobby and bar area. There was a band playing that night so we had a late snack in the bar. Sandy and I had a glass of wine while Shannon went for a non-alchoholic version of a fufu drink. There was no internet access in the rooms but there was WiFi at the bar and at the pool. Dang! We'd just have to hang out there so Sandy could keep up with her email for work.
Our rooms turned out to be quite nice, and we got two adjoining rooms very close to the lobby/bar and the pool area. That worked well for us. In the morning we would go for a walk on the beach. Then we would have a nice buffet breakfast that was included with our rooms. Since Sandy had been pretty busy at work and Shannon had just finished with her exams, they were both looking forward to a relaxing holiday. We spent most of our time just hanging out at the resort, usually by the pool. Sandy could do her email and Shannon and I could read our books. There was hardly anyone there so it was easy for us to find spots by the pool. I guess it just wasn't their busy season. The water in the pool was a perfect temperature for a dip when it got too warm lying out. And we could order our lunch right from our pool chairs, or in the late afternoon get drinks at the swim up bar. Yeah, life's tough.
Malysia is a Moslem country. Some people don't realize that a lot of Southeast Asia is heavily Moslem. Here's another pop quiz. What's the largest Moslem country in the world by population? I'll give you a hint. It's not in the Middle East.
Malaysia is mid-way between a theocracy like Iran and a secular Moslem country like Turkey. They even have two separate court systems, a civil court system and an Islamic court system. Depending on the nature of the legal issue, you take it to one or the other court. There is actually a fair amount of turmoil over religion inside of Malaysia right now. While other religions are not persecuted they are not given full legal status. Since there are quite a few Hindus living in Malaysia, this causes conflict. You might have heard about a big court case in Malaysia recently (it had a lot of visibility on the web). A Christian woman was trying to change her legal status (your religion is registered in Malaysia) from Islam to Christianity. She wanted to marry another Christian and couldn't because mixed marriages are not allowed. She lost her case. She was not legally allowed to renounce Islam.
In strongly Moslem countries the most obvious thing you notice is that people are incredibly modest, especially women. Most women are covered pretty much head to foot. They wear a traditional islamic scarf called a hijab, although in Malaysia it's called a tudung. For most of them, it looks like a headscarf that they wrap around their head and neck so that they look like the Catholic nuns I had for teachers back in grade school. Looks pretty hot to me in a place as warm and humid as Malaysia. A few women wear complete head and face coverings, usually all black, that only leave their eyes visible. I would think it would be unbearable in the heat. Even on the beach, most of the locals wore long pants and tshirts. Some of the women even wore their scarves in the water. Man, and I thought Mormons had a tough dress code!
For westerners visiting, it is usually ok to wear normal swimwear around the resort. It does seem a little strange to be sitting by the pool in swimming suits and see a bunch of local women having lunch at the patio restaurant completely bundled up. Outside of the resort most western women dress more modestly, the normal expectation being that they not wear any shorts or skirts above the knee. We didn't go out much but when we did Sandy always wore either her capris or long shorts. Shannon stuck with Western styles and wore shorter shorts. The local boys probably got a thrill. But usually we stayed on the resort.
One day we did take a taxi and did some shopping. We went to a craft shop that had some really nice stuff for reasonable prices. Then we went to Oriental Village, a tourist development with quite a few shops. There was even a cable car that went to the summit of Gunung Matcincang. At about 2150 feet it is the second highest mountain on the island. We thought about going but it was late in the day. When we planned to try again there were some threatening clouds in the distance. A cable car or mountain top did not seem the place to be in a lightning storm! We also spent some time just walking along the road in front of our hotel. Since it follows the coast there are a number of hotels which means there are various tourist shops. Sandy found a nice bracelet. I was able to find some tshirts and even some PC games (probably bootleg, like the DVD's in Jahore Bahru). I got four, but when I got home I could only get two of them to work. Still pretty cheap though. Shannon got a toe ring but it broke the very first night! I guess there is a reason that stuff isn't very expensive in Malaysia.
The people in Malaysia were very friendly and helpful. That was true at the resort, in the shops, or just people that I encountered on the street. Langkawi was beautiful. It was also quite uncrowded which was a nice change from a lot of the tropical islands that we have visited. The only negative for me was that I did not feel completely comfortable there. I have traveled a lot and am used to looking different from everyone else, but this wasn't the same. It wasn't just appearance, being taller or fairer skinned or whatever than everybody else. The Islamic dress was a constant reminder that there were some real differences of culture, thinking and values. It could be that over time (and maybe with a few more trips into Malaysia) I will feel more comfortable there.