Chinese New Year in KL

Gong xi fa cai! Happy New Year, little piggies*!

*May not be an exact translation.

This was my first time celebrating Chinese New Year (CNY) anywhere, so I’ll cover the basics for any other first timers. Firstly, it is based on the lunar calendar so the dates change every year. This year it started on Tuesday 5th February and ended on 19th February. So, definitely not in December which is when we decorated our Christmas tree in CNY dragons and piggies. Hehehe..

Secondly, each year is based on the Chinese zodiac, and this time it’s the year of the pig! This leads me onto an interesting fact about CNY in Malaysia.

Malaysia is a very multi-cultural society, but is still predominantly Muslim. One of the things that I’ve learned about Muslim culture is that pigs, or at least pork, is haram i.e. forbidden by Islamic law. This means that while the large Chinese population here bloody love pork and all things pig-related, the larger Malay Muslim population hate it. So in Malaysia, the year of the pig is not celebrated with images of the pig everywhere as it would be elsewhere, as this would be offensive to the Malay people. You can buy adorable little piggie accessories and you’ll see them in the Chinese shops and temples, but not in public places, which are decorated with lots of more generic (and lovely) CNY red decorations, flowers and displays of other important figures, like the god of prosperity. He looks quite fat and happy so I like him a lot.

Thean Hou CNY5

This is Thean Hou temple, one of my favourite places in KL. It has six tiers and is apparently one of the oldest and largest temples in Southeast Asia (sidenote: I feel like a lot of temples claim this fact, but it still may be true). Like most Chinese temples, it celebrates a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. I love the fact that it’s ok to mix these ideologies in one place, and I’ve heard people who describe themselves as Buddhists here say that it is not necessarily a religion but a way of life that anyone can choose to live by, alongside anything else you might believe in. The Chinese temples in Malaysia are such beautiful, welcoming places and this one perched on a hill over the city has to be one of the best.

The first time we visited Thean Hou was when we first arrived in KL, and it was decorated with yellow lanterns at that time. Just for some daytime pics and a comparison to CNY, here it is in September:

This time, for CNY, it was decorated with red lanterns, the colour of luck and happiness. Isn’t it just gorgeous?

One lovely tradition here over CNY is the “open house”. I actually can’t work out if this is common everywhere that celebrates it, or if it’s specific to the Malaysian Chinese. But what happens is that some Chinese families open their doors for family, friends and strangers to come in and share in their food, drink and revelry to celebrate the new year. We were lucky enough to be invited by someone we know to celebrate with his family.

The traditional gifts to give at CNY are angpao, little red envelopes with cash inside, and mandarin oranges. We also thought it would be cute to bring something from “home” to our hosts, but that’s hard to arrange last minute in KL, so I hope they enjoyed their unbranded Scottish shortbread with their tea (neither of us are Scottish, but close enough).

Apparently Malaysia has the best dragon and lion dance teams in the world, so I’m sorry that we only got to see one performance, but it was amazing! Overall, Chinese New Year has been a gorgeous, happy celebration in KL and it reminded me that it’s such a treat to live in this multicultural place.

 

Bali: what’s the big deal?

Unlike the stereotypical Bali traveller, I wasn’t on a spiritual quest to “find myself” or party hard, but I was on a quest to have fun and relax after the weird misadventures of Lombok. And I was quite hopeful, because at least people go to Bali and, with it being so popular, I assume they enjoy it. I have even heard real-life humans say they love Bali.

People famously go to the island to “eat, pray, love”. Or in my case, eat badly, pray not get scammed, and love leaving. Overall I didn’t actually hate it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it or understand the hype. Some of its best attributes were overshadowed by its worst ones.

Bali2.jpg

Those best attributes include gorgeous sunsets, unique cliffside temples, beautiful scenery and some cute animals. I saw two monkeys having a HUG for goodness sake. These things are definitely to be enjoyed and appreciated.

I also met another sweet cat here, who did things like steal my breakfast and drink water from the swimming pool. What a weirdo.

 

Bali’s worst attributes, in my experience, include some really poor food, dodgy taxi drivers and a general culture of taking advantage of tourists. And also some (different) monkeys terrorising and biting people.

Our first experience after clambering elegantly off the boat from Lombok was being approached, surrounded, shouted at and then followed by a mob of pushy taxi drivers as we tried to order a Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia). I prefer Grab because you know who your driver is and the price is fair, agreed beforehand, and based on distance/time of day, rather than how much of a mug (i.e. tourist) you appear to be. It turned out that Bali has similar rules to Lombok, in that some areas are off limits to Grab and only local taxis are available. So, with tails between our legs, we eventually gave in to one persistent driver and haggled with him over the price to take us to our accommodation. Feeling that we were being overcharged but without any other choice, we went on our way.

He stopped along the way insisting we try some local coffee for free at some place he “recommended”. Tasting was free, but with a sales pitch and presumably set up so that we would buy this stuff and he would get a commission for having brought us. We didn’t buy any because we didn’t want any. This kind of thing isn’t too objectionable, but I don’t like it and on a long journey, it was a waste of time. I mean, just taking us to our destination would have been fine… oh wait, he didn’t even do that!

Arriving in the town where we were staying, he suddenly asked us to either pay more or get out here. His reason was that he didn’t know the address of our accommodation. We calmly and, I thought, quite reasonably, explained that we would tell him the address. You know, how ALL TAXI JOURNEYS WORK. He said he’d do that if we paid more. We explained that we negotiated the (already inflated) price on the understanding that he would take us to our actual destination. He wasn’t having it, and I was afraid that things would get more heated if we insisted, so we got out and at this point were able to order a Grab.

Throughout our stay, several times we were asked to pay more than the stated fare for a taxi for stupid reasons, including “bad traffic” before having set off on a journey that was then devoid of traffic. One driver who reluctantly agreed to accept the original fare then drove us to the wrong place. We didn’t rent a scooter because we read that police often target tourists and fine/ bribe them to avoid getting into trouble for minor violations or made up offences. We probably would have been ok, but I was getting the heebie-jeebies about Bali and didn’t want to take any chances.

There is so much advice online about all the ways you might be scammed here. What annoys me most is the attitude behind some of these posts, for example, almost proudly informing you that you WILL get scammed on your first visit, as if it’s a rite of passage. An inevitable thing that you have to go through to be part of the experienced-Bali-traveller club. A badge of honour. Or that, because it’s well documented, it’s your own fault if something bad happens. Umm…NO! It’s not fair, it’s not acceptable and it’s not “cool” to say you’ve been through it. I don’t think it should be encouraged or accepted as part of the deal. And what about those poor souls seeking inner peace and the meaning of life? Do they all end up nervous wrecks, realising they can only find happiness (on Bali) by being hyper-alert and suspicious at every turn while en route to the nearest wellness retreat to recover?

Maybe I let it get to me too much, maybe we were unlucky, but I can’t understand how so many people, especially those looking for some space and calm in their lives, really enjoy this place. We did get around different parts of the island, and some were better than others, but I feel like even on a good day, it’s quite nice at best.

Well maybe comparing it to a grey rainy day in the UK, looking at a spreadsheet and eating a soggy sandwich at your desk, it’s a better place to be. But comparing it to other destinations very nearby, where you can also experience a mix of culture, history, temples, beaches, cliffs, forests, and monkeys that might bite you at any moment because you looked at them sideways – it doesn’t stack up. I’m pretty confident that you can achieve all of the above with a little more fun, affordability and peace of mind elsewhere in Indonesia.

One thing I haven’t talked about much on this blog is being a vegetarian, but I would like to say that travelling as a vegetarian in Indonesia is generally a very easy and delicious experience. Exhibit A: tempeh. It’s the yummier version of tofu, made of fermented soybeans and with a much nicer texture and flavour. I know it might sound gross, but it’s not. Just trust me, it’s great, and the whole world should be eating it. Anyway, I did eat some nice food in Bali, but we went to some highly rated vegetarian spots and found them really disappointing.

Let’s end with the positives again, because it truly wasn’t all bad. Pictured below in no particular order are some of my favourite things that I would recommend in Bali: the temples at Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, learning to make coconut oil, the monkey forest and the Ubud water palace.

 

….and AS IF I didn’t take a picture of the hugging monkeys!

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Next stop, Surabaya!

I’m going to start this post with some basic geography. This is not my picture, but I googled it and it amazes me. Indonesia compared to Europe:

Indonesia Europe

HUGE! Java is the relatively small island stretching out across the south of France in that image, and this island alone has over 141 million people (the UK only has about 66 million). Surabaya is in Java and is the second biggest city in Indonesia, which means it’s absolutely massive. We decided to travel there by train. Choo choo! All aboard the Surabaya express!

Ok, it wasn’t an express, but it was a train and it took 4 and a half hours from Yogyakarta. I  love long train journeys so was pretty excited about this, and it turned out to be even more fun than expected.

The station at Jogja is hectic and when a train pulled in, at the exact time our train was due, at the exact platform where it was due, we were told not to get on, because it wasn’t our train. We were pretty sure it was our train but have learned to trust people more than official schedules by now. They were right, our train actually appeared about 20 minutes later, but I’m not sure how we would have worked that out if I hadn’t kept asking people. It wasn’t announced or displayed anywhere. Anyway, I bounced on board prepared for some chill time with my kindle and some podcasts at the ready, but bringing my own entertainment wasn’t necessary. The train had comfy seats, more leg room than I’d ever need, and they were showing episodes of what I assumed to be the Indonesian Thomas the Tank on screens. And that’s not even the best part. They also served food, but we didn’t have to walk to the carriage serving it like schmucks. No no no. Just whatsapp them with your order and they’ll come and serve you at your seat! One of the big differences between Indonesia and Malaysia is that fewer people speak English here, and we can get out of our depth trying to communicate in Bahasa Indonesian. So sometimes Google Translate still makes me LOL hysterically on a train while trying to order a hot chocolate:

Surabaya itself is underrated in my opinion. Even taxi drivers and people we met there said if someone asks what there is to do in Surabaya, they say “nothing”. But it’s just not true! It’s definitely a good place to go if you’re interested in Indonesian history. The museums are a little bit weird, like the cigarette factory that for some reason inserts a small section on the evolution of man itself into the story of the evolution of the tobacco trade. This was the House of Sampoerna, which was genuinely an interesting place to spend a few hours learning about the man who started this business, his rags to riches story, the evolution of man (of course) and the tobacco trade, and you can see the workers still packing the cigarettes in the working factory today. It even inspired me to take up smoking (not really).

Another point of interest is the Heroes Monument, which celebrates Indonesian independence with some serious attitude. ALLIED FORCES GO AWAY! Fair enough.

Speaking of allied forces, the museum at the monument mainly focuses on the Battle of Surabaya, fought between Indonesian independence fighters and the… British. Knowing that Indonesia was a Dutch colony, this greatly confused me. What the hell were the British doing there? And why did I have to say I was from the UK to the girl at the door? How embarrassing. The museum does a great job of casually celebrating child soldiers who fought for Indonesia and also not explaining what the British were doing there in the first place. I assume most people would also know that this was a Dutch colony and be confused by the context surrounding this battle, but we had to resort to our own online research to get a proper explanation (and it still doesn’t make much sense, but that’s certainly not Indonesia’s fault).

My favourite story from this museum was the story of the flag (you can take the girl out of Northern Ireland…etc.) Some young fighters climbed on top of the Yamato Hotel in Surabaya, took down the Dutch flag, ripped off the blue strip at the bottom, and hoisted it up again as the Indonesian flag (the remaining red and white stripes). Although it seems like the red and white flag was used before this by an old 13th century empire in Java, the ripping of the Dutch flag still happened, and I love the symbolism.

Other interesting things to do include the Arab quarter, where you can buy all the dates and Muslim fashion you’d ever dream of, sunset by the harbour, Chinese and Hindu temples, and some rooftop bars. I thought it was a pretty cool city with a nice vibe. We made a bunch of friends too which really made our experience a bit more special, although it’s basically impossible to not make friends here as the people are ridiculously nice. By the way, if you’re getting bored with me just loving everything and having a great time, sit tight. It doesn’t last. But can I get a WOOP WOOP for Surabaya (and these explicit Neanderthals from the cigarette factory)?

 

 

Borobudur at sunset

The Borobudur temple is one of the main reasons people go to Yogyakarta. It’s a Buddhist temple about an hour outside the city. Actually it’s the biggest Buddhist temple in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having an accolade like that, it surprised me that I hadn’t really been aware of it before, and we often mispronounced the name (we misprounounce a lot of things, recently telling a taxi driver in Lombok, an island about 500 miles away, that our address on the hill was Borobudur). This was the outsider’s unenlightened ignorance, and we all know the best place to become enlightened about anything is a Buddhist temple.

But I now realise that the temple’s image is often used to promote Indonesia and Java in particular. It’s on the front cover of our Indonesia guidebook, for example, and once in Jogja, it’s clear that going to Borobodur is the thing to do. The most commonly promoted way to see it is with a one day tour along with Prambanan (the Hindu temple where we saw the traditional ballet), which doesn’t make a lot of sense because they aren’t connected in any way and are in different directions once you leave the city. It seemed like it would be a long day, we haven’t had good experiences with organised tours before, and I didn’t want to risk cultural fatigue. Nobody wants to be that idiot who turns up to the world’s largest Buddhist temple and thinks, “yeah, fine, it’s another temple, I’ve seen like 10 of these today”. I don’t really think that is possible now, having been there, but I still prefer to spread things out.

Whether you do it on its own or with Prambanan and other temples, the recurring theme with Borobodur is SUNRISE. Sunrise tours are highly reviewed online, tour companies and locals encourage people to get up early and see the sunrise there. I have no doubt that it’s beautiful at that time, but for various reasons, I decided we’d go for sunset instead.

The practical reason was that Joe is working on this trip, and needs to be doing [insert whatever it is that Joe does] by 7am in this particular timezone. So getting to Borobudur for sunrise and back in time wasn’t really an option, unless we waited until the weekend, and as you’ll know from my last post, we had loads of other stuff to do at the weekend. Like launching my pottery career. I also like to be asleep very early in the morning, and love the golden hour of sunset almost anywhere in the world.

Based on its popularity, I was pretty sure the temple would be swarming with tourists and photographers early in the morning, which is fine, but not conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience (or the best photographs). I can also tell you something else that isn’t conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience: being stuck in traffic on your way to Borobudur with the sun quickly setting, thinking you’ve ruined the whole trip by not just doing what EVERYONE told you to do, and going for sunrise.

But guess what? I didn’t ruin it! We made it before sunset and it was absolutely bloody beautiful.

Borobudur.jpg

It’s massive, impressive, imposing, peaceful and eerie all at once. There were a few people there with us, no more than 8, and they seemed to be professional photographers. Borobudur has 9 levels and is quite steep to climb, but there are about 500 Buddhas around to encourage you to keep going. Mostly they are inside the bell-shaped domes, although some of them have been opened up or broken, and you can see their calm sweet faces. I read that it was built around the 8th or 9th century, but spent hundreds of years hidden under volcanic ash and jungle after it was abandoned (presumably due to the volcanic eruption) and I kept imaging how it must have felt to be one of the people who rediscovered it all those years later. It’s an amazing thing to see, even when you know it’s there.

I think my photographs of the temple could be on the cover of a guidebook. I’m obsessed with them. This might sound arrogant, and I just took them on my phone, but I can imagine many people having a similar experience, looking back at their own pictures of Borobudur and thinking THAT LOOKS AMAZING. It’s not that I think I’m an excellent photographer, it’s just that this is one hell of a photogenic temple.