Friday, May 30, 2014

Ipoh Rocks

31 May 2014

We're back in KL, after three or so days in Ipoh.  (That's pronounced EE-poe - not EYE-poe.  EE-poe.)  

Ipoh was interesting - and MOST definitely off the beaten path.  I don't think we saw any other people of European descent the entire time we were there.
The train was fully booked from Butterworth south - Butterworth being the mainland town closest to George Town.  So we hired the driver from our hotel, and had a very comfortable drive to Ipoh.  It's about a 2 hour trip, since it takes nearly 45 minutes to go from George Town to the mainland, heading out of town and across the 13.5 km (8.4 mile) long bridge.  Yes, LOOOONG bridge!  And then a drive south through the green plains and greener hills.  (But no monkeys.)

So Ipoh is set among hills, but is in the flat valley created by the Kinta River.  In fact, the town was built at the highest navigable point along the river.   (The Kinta River is a branch of the Perak River, which is the largest river in Malaysia.)

The hills around Ipoh sort of rise up suddenly, similar to the way sea stacks rise up out of the sea.  They look like blemishes on the plains, just so unexpectedly soaring straight up.  Many of the hills are marble, so they shine brightly white in the sunshine.  The marble also is stained in stripes from the minerals leaching out of the soil and trees on top of the hills, so the face of the rock looks like zebra rock.  If such a thing exists.


Just in case all of that wasn't interesting enough, there are caves as the base of the hills, most likely
 carved out by the river at some point in time eons ago.  People have taken advantage of this other-worldly landscape by building temples at the base of the hills and in the caves.  Yes, this Buddhist temple actually is INSIDE the cave!  There are several hills with cave temples - this particular hill has a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and around the other side is a mosque.  (I couldn't get a decent photo of this.)

It was pretty amazing!

We couldn't visit the temples - the Hindu one was undergoing renovations, as was the mosque.  The Buddhist temple was all locked up.  I'm not sure if there's a tourist season in Ipoh, but that was definitely not it.

Of course, Dad's hat was fascinated by all of this, and spent a lot of time looking around.  Unfortunately, the hat doesn't talk and couldn't explain all of the geomorphology to us.  But we had a good time anyway.

The tradition, after looking at beaches or rock formations, is then to have pastry.  Seriously.  My dad's graduate seminar on coastal processes was dubbed "The Doughnut Seminar" by his grad students.  They'd have weekly field trips to a series of beaches, studying how the beaches were formed, erosion, accretion, off-shore drift, all that stuff.  Then, because the Pacific Northwest is often damp and cold and drizzly and misty and foggy and yes, rainy, especially along the coast, my dad would usually say "And over here is a great little coffee shop, with very good [insert pie, cake, doughnut, whatever was the specialty of the house]." 
Hence the Doughnut Seminar was born.

So of course, to carry on the tradition, Richard and I found a café named BreadEspressoDessert.  How bad could it be?  Turned out to be great!  I shared my strawberry tart with the hat.  Richard had French toast.  We both had coffee.  Not because Ipoh was cold, but because the afternoon rain started and we both were a little damp.  It's a lovely tradition, coffee and pastry after rock viewing.

 So - our other full day in Ipoh was, unfortunately, the day of the funeral for the former Sultan of Perak, the state in which Ipoh is located.  The Sultan passed away the day before, so suddenly the government declared this a state holiday and half the places were closed.  People attended the funeral.  Bus schedules were iffy, what was open or closed was unknown, and so we ended up with a day to relax and hang out.  Which was probably a good thing since the afternoon rains came early and stayed late - it turned into a very wet afternoon.  We didn't mind, our hotel room was fairly comfortable, and we both are okay with the slow day, especially since we got in so much walking the previous day.

I finally found Tigerplast bandaids (sticking plasters to the British English speakers) that make sense.  Really.  I commented a few months ago that Tigerplast bandages should have tiger stripes.  These do.  The Safari series.  Tiger stripes, zebra stripes, pinto horse spots, and leopard spots.  (I'm not sure how the pinto got in there - but it's either pinto spots or cow spots, there aren't any African animals with black spots on white.  Well, nor are tigers in Africa, but oh well.)  I think the leopard spots are my favourite.

On Friday, we headed to the Ipoh train station, a lovely building from the mid 1800s, and caught the fast train to KL.  Turns out the "express" train from KL to Butterworth, or the return train, are really the slow trains.  That route takes some 6 hours.  The other train, Ipoh to KL, was only 2.5 hours.  However, this speedy train doesn't go to Butterworth, so the slow "express" is the only option.

Oh, excitement on the train (not) - when booking train tickets online, we can select seats using a little map of the train.  Of course, the map doesn't show which way the seats face.  Nor which way is the front of the train.  So it's anyone's guess whether the seats one books face forward or backwards.  We took our chances, booked row 3 coach D, ended up facing backwards.  I can't ride backwards.  It triggers my vertigo and I get, well, mal du mer.  Motion sick.  (I actually ended up on a very full train in France, with a seat facing backwards.  No other seats available.  I spent the 2 hour trip sitting on the drop-down table so I could face forward.)

I moved to another seat, but a few stops down the track the real owners of the seat showed up.  I moved back by Richard and just stood, facing forward.  Eventually the very nice conductor (on this train all women conductors) came by and found a seat facing forward for me, and I moved to coach E.  And had a lovely trip the rest of the way.

We're back at the Ancasa Hotel at Pudu Sentral, the major bus station - and have been welcomed back by staff, since we've been here several times previously.  Everyone is sad we're only here for a week and then heading out - but our visas expire in a week, and we need to migrate north for the summer.  It's the only time we're willing to face northern Asia, which can get quite cold and snowy.

We'll see what our next week in KL brings!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Good-bye Penang #3 - Kittiness

26 May 2014

We're leaving Pulau Penang and lovely George Town, and moving on.  Our visa expires in early June, so we're heading off to see a few more spots in Malaysia before we fly north for the summer, like migrating tropical birds.

Besides, we haven't heard back from the TV people and we both agreed we can't just hang around on the off chance that we finally get a message to be extras for a day or two of filming.  We have better things to do.

So today we went to our couple of favourite spots in the neighbourhood, and said good-bye - it's always hard saying good-bye to friends we make during our travels, but, well, such is the life of the Rolling Luggager.

One of my stops today was at China House, our favourite place for a posh brekkie or, even better, a slice of cake.  They have a Happy Cat (what we call the Japanese cat who waves at people) at one entrance, as part of the 101 Lost Kittens Project to protect stray animals.

They have phenomenal cake.  Pictured here - Devil Cake, a dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate frosting, and they're about to cut a slice for Richard.  The other cake is for me, Be Mine - dark chocolate cake rolled vertically (think jellyroll on end) with cream cheese frosting and fresh raspberries, and a thin layer of yellow cake on the top and bottom to help stabilize the roll of cake.  Amazing cake!!!!  Almost as good as my personal fave, the Chocolate Tissimo - moist brownie-like chocolate cake with walnuts, covered in chocolate mousse and chocolate curls.  Though their version of a tiramisu is a close second, except today I discovered their Chocolate Tower.  Five or six layers of chocolate cake, layers sliced thin, with sort of an ombre effect of cream filling - top layer is coffee cream, next is light mocha, after that is darker mocha, then chocolate, then very dark chocolate - each layer of cream progressively darker and more chocolatey. O.M.G.!!!!  All draped in a very dark ganache-like frosting.  Yes, Seattle friends, we will try making this during one of my visits!!!!

Anyway, China House has some tables in the casual section, with paper on top of the black tablecloths.  And a cup of oil pastels on each table.  So of course I sit and draw every time we go there.  A dragon.  A sunset.  A beach scene.  Once I found out about the 101 Lost Kittens Project, of course I started drawing kittens.  Or cats.  Since I'm not saving things, I just take a photo of my drawings - so here you go, more cats.  A few Happy Cats, a Party Animal cat (reminiscent of our Cleo), and a dog and cat friendship a la Keith Haring.  Kittiness.  Cat silliness.

Our friends at the Kantan Kafé, home of our almost-daily bagels, have the silliest cat yet.  It's a toy they bought in Japan - looks like just a cute and cuddly orange kitty, right?  Turn it on and the kitty records what you say and then repeats it in a high squeaky vaguely lisping voice while bobbing its head up and down maniacally!  The thing is absolutely hilarious!  We go into hysterics every time we play with it, the little guy is so funny!  Of course, then he records our laughter and repeats that, making slightly crazed laughing noises, which send us into more laughter!  Then we'll give messages to each other through the kitty who garbles the message and makes it funnier, repeating the whole process.  Yes, he'll sing.  But if I sing soprano, his high-pitched repetition is enough to break glass!!!  We definitely need to find one of these, he's good for endless laughter!

About the Happy Cat earrings - I've been looking for a tiny Happy Cat to use as a pendant, I like the Happy Cat and thought it would be a cute and inexpensive souvenir from Asia.  Couldn't find one tiny enough, except a small bell at the Purrfect Café - and thank you but I don't need a bell around my neck.

Well, I finally found the earrings at Kek Lok Si, the big temple I visited last week.  Couldn't decide which colour scheme I liked, so I bought three pair.  Might wear them as earrings, but I think I like them better as a pendant, one at a time.  Which, of course, leaves a single unmatched kitty of each colour for, oh, maybe three of my nieces.

We leave tomorrow for Ipoh, a bit south.  Ipoh is a former British colonial outpost and the capital of the state of Perak, and also gateway to the Cameron Highlands, one of the few tropical highland regions in the world.  We'll spend several days there before heading south back to KL, and then, as I said, heading north for the summer.

So I'll post from Ipoh, and share whatever excitement is going on in our lives when we're there.

Good-bye Penang #2 - Lion Dancing on Stilts!!!

26 May 2014

Sunday night was the final segment of the Penang International Lion Dance on Stilts Competition.  This is a HUGE deal around here - competing groups come from mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, as well as all over Malaysia.

A little background - Lion Dancing is a Chinese tradition, and developed into two distinct different types of costume and dance, divided into the north and south styles.  The southern type of Lion Dancing eventually was brought to SE Asia by the various waves of Chinese conquests, migrations, and immigrations.

And in SE Asia, the real measure of a Lion Dance is the acrobatic skill in dancing on stilts - not stilts like sticks, but more like tall metal poles with a small platform on top.  Tall stanchions.  Imagine a wide metal pipe with a small metal square on top - these are the stilts used in Lion Dancing.  (The small metal square is barely 30 cm, or 12 inches, square.  Really small.  Hardly big enough for two feet to stand on it.)

Lion Dancing on Stilts is promoted in Malaysia as both a cultural heritage and a healthy sport.  And considering the acrobatic nature of this tradition, it definitely qualifies as a sport!

The "stilts" range from roughly 1 meter high (3 feet 3 inches) to roughly 2.5 or 3 meters - that's 7.5 to 9.75 feet!!!  

Okay, so we got a taxi out to Han Chiang Stadium, which turns out to be the gymnasium at Han Chiang school.  The place is packed!  We paid our 5 ringgit admission and went in; the woman handed us a program and apologized that it was only in Chinese, but I told her we'd enjoy the pictures.  An usher pointed out some empty bleachers, and we went to sit at the far end of the gym.

We brought our dinner with us, but it turned out there was food for sale, although it was mostly junk food so we were glad to have our sandwiches and water.  And there was a wait between each performance, plenty of time to eat and not miss any action.

So, the sequence - first, the lion dancers get their costumes on, minus the head and body.  They test the sequencing of the stilts - it's important that the varying heights are the same distance apart and in the same sequence as what they've used for practice.  They spend quite a bit of time adjusting and moving around the stilts, and making sure the cushions are placed under and around all the stilts.  (Last year, one dancer was blinded by the flash photography, and slipped and fell from 2.5 meters - not good!  I made sure my camera was set with the flash off!)

Then the team gathers with their band, and their national flag.  Our neighbours were nice about identifying flags for us - we only recognized the flags of Malaysia and Indonesia, since we haven't been to the other countries yet.

The team parades around while everyone cheers, and the members of the team are introduced.  The band members - drummers, cymbal and gong players - go off to one side where they've set up their instruments, and the dancers don head gear and body cover.  There are two dancers per lion, one in front and one in back.  The back guy is the strength of the animal, since he lifts the front guy some of the time.

And they are off, dancing and acting as lion-like as they can.

Then the team gathers and waits for the judges' scores, and the crowd cheers if they agree with the scores, or boos if they disagree.  And it didn't seem to matter if the team had many supporters in the audience or not, the crowd really cheered for teams that did well, and had lukewarm applause for mediocre teams.

Between performances, while waiting for the next team to adjust the stilts and get ready, people would visit with friends, talk, go get more food, or pose with the lion head masks waiting to be used.  The little kids were wonderful - some children were afraid of the masks and wouldn't get too near to them.  Others weren't intimidated, and just wanted to pet the lions, much to their parents' chagrin.  It was very funny to watch.


The dance seemed to have certain components that possibly were required, or are just considered necessary parts of the dance.

First, there's a creative entrance or climbing up on the stilts.  Some people dance around a bit and then jump onto the stilts, beginning with the shortest set.  Others jump onto a higher set, front person first and then back person swinging around.  Others have the lion act fearful and reticent, while others are brave lions who stand up on the hind legs and jump right up onto those stilts.

 There's the dancing part, which seems to include acting kittenish more than like a lion - dancing back and forth on varying stilt heights, prancing on top of the stilts in time to the music.  One dancer often jumps partway down a set of stilts while the other dancer holds him, so the lion looks like he's leaning down over the stilt.

And again, sometimes one dancer will hold the other and swing his end of the lion around in a swoop, sort of like the lion is doing a pirouette.

The lions always stand up, back person holding up the front person, who uses his legs to look like the front paws of the lion.  The lion also turns around, backtracks, and does some fancy footwork for the other half of the audience.

And the lion always manages to crouch down and to a few kitty moves - scratching ears with each back foot.  Wiggling his back end like he's ready to attack his prey.  

There's also always a time when the lion dances with a prop - maybe the lion brings the prop and places it on a stand, or maybe the prop is set up ahead of time.  At any rate, the lion often eats the prop, or plays with it (a hula hoop on a foot, a balloon in the mouth, whatever) and then throws the prop onto the floor.  

And when the lion finally gets to the tallest stanchion, somehow the front and back end people get all four feet on that little square.  Or the lion stands up.  Something worthy of applause, because this is the literal height of their performance.

Some more lion dancing and playing, and the lion dances his way back to the shorter stilts.

And then, the dismount - as everyone in any gymnastics competition knows, the dismount is just as important.  

So some teams jump off in unison from a middle height stilt.  Others jump one at a time, or the front person jumps and pivots while the rear person swings around and off the stilts.

But my favourite was the Indonesian team - the front person somehow held onto the square platform with his toes, the back person vaulted feet first over his back, and then the front person flipped - so the illusion was that the lion was turning a somersault to flip off of the stilts!  Wow, amazing!!!

According to what I've read, the colour of the lion corresponds to the age of the lion - a black lion is considered to be the youngest, and thus should act that way.  A white lion is the oldest, and so the performers should display that age in their dance.  The red and yellow lions are in the middle, and so the performance reflects that.  

The colours also indicate the personalities of the lions, although my sources seemed rather contradictory in terms of what kind of personality each colour represented.

At any rate, this was one of the more exciting events we've been to, and it really was fun to be part of a big crowd cheering on these teenagers!

We didn't stay until the end, it was raining and we found someone to call a taxi for us so we just left.  We don't know who won.  

But WOW, what an interesting, exciting cultural event to attend!  One of the coolest things we've gone to in a long time!!!