Malaysia: Days 4 & 5

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Days 4 & 5

Patriotic Frisbee–Robed Tourists Swarm the Mosque–Lamb–Butterflies–Orchids–Saturday in Little India–The Fifth Largest Building in the World–The Red Light District of Berjaya Times Square–A Massage–Don’t Put that in Your Ear–A Final Hookah–Roti Baba–Farewell Curry

Still recovering from the Christmas feast the day before, we skipped breakfast, grabbing only a quick froth tea before heading back towards the Islamic Art Museum to visit the Kuala Lumpur National Mosque. Christmas day we were denied access to the mosque on account of it being closed for prayer at the time, so we decided to remedy the setback.

On the way we stopped at Merdeka square, Kuala Lumpur’s very own independence memorial and the original site of the first Malaysian flag raising in 1957. After a quick survey of the park and the building surrounding it, we decided it best to pay our respects to the country’s independence with frisbee.

We reached the National Mosque, a fairly modernized looking edifice that is KL’s largest, and slowly walked around the building’s exterior and interior. 

Being a holy place, Mosques expect a certain attire from visitors wanting to enter. The usual tourist garb of shorts and sleeveless tee-shirts doesn’t fly, especially for female guests. Therefore the National Mosque requires all visitors with excessive exposed skin to dress in what could easily pass as a purple Jedi nightgown or Jeremy Irons’ brightly colored gynecological scrubs from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers–all references to the loose-fitting purple robes seemed feasible at the time.


We lingered for a bit watching various Chinese tourists pose for photos with “real-life praying Muslims” but eventually headed out to check out Taman Rama-rama (which sounds like a children’s song) AKA the KL butterfly park.

The butterfly sanctuary was a lot more interesting that it sounds. The outdoor, netted sanctuary houses roughly 6,000 butterflies, with over 120 species present. Butterflies are easily taken for granted, but they truly are beautiful–each with its own color scheme and no two butterflies the same.

The Perdana Lake Gardens is a truly remarkable part of Kuala Lumpur, an otherwise major chaotic city. The gardens seem to represent the natural, more serene side of Malaysia and give residents a much needed break from city life. Walking around the butterfly park, and later the orchid and hibiscus garden, was a wonderful transition from the hustle and bustle of the city center.

After the butterfly park we made are way back to the Islamic Art Museum for lunch at the much-applauded museum cafe, which we had heard served up some incredible Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine. The cafe overlooks an outdoor courtyard that features one of the museum’s aforementioned five domes. The spread was indeed a treat: roast lamb, grilled eggplant, spicy barley soup, fresh roti bread, a lump-tuna salad that instantly brought to mind Iberia (taste bud déja vu perhaps), fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salt, and an impressive olive, hummus, and baba ghannoug bar to start things off.



Among other world cuisines, Taipei is lacking solid Mediterranean food. There’s a halfway decent chain of falafel joints around the city but unfortunately years of wolfing down sandwiches at Chicago’s Pita Inn and Sultan’s Market have made me a bit of a connoisseur of the chickpea and its brethren and Taipei’s Sababa just reminds me of what I’m missing at home. It was therefore a treat to have some truly decent food at the cafe.

After getting our fill at the cafe (gluttony seems to be an underlying theme of travel in Malaysia) we walked towards the park’s orchid and hibiscus garden, an impromptu decision but one that was worth it.

I don’t pretend to know anything about flowers. During my childhood my mother was always an avid weekend gardener, I’ve visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens a number of times, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Charlie Kaufman film “adaptation” of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, Adaptation, which philosophizes about the beauty and mystery of orchids. Still I wouldn’t consider myself the type who normally seeks out gardens while traveling.

Like the butterfly park before, the Taman Orkid was another beautiful departure from busy KL central. The garden boasts addressing over 3,000 global species of orchids, 800 of which come directly from Malaysia. The garden is broken up into a series of small walking gardens and one orchid bazaar.
The variety of colors and shapes found makes it easy to understand why there are orchid festivals and fanatics to attend such galas. An orange sherbet flower in particular caught my eye.


Along the way I spotted a foreigner reading on a bench under a canopy of hanging flowers, in an area void of the sounds of tourists or garden hands at work. Whether she was a fellow traveler enjoying the park or an expat living in KL was irrelevant. It seemed like a blissful moment. I remember thinking, “yeah, this is pretty nice.”

After wandering around for a while we decided to catch a taxi back to Little India to check out the Saturday street market. This would be my second of three trips to Little India but was without a doubt the most memorable.



The Saturday market spans the length of a major street bisecting the district. From the narrow row of stalls vendors hawk clothes, textiles, discounted copy-products and a colorful and delectable array of snacks. Samosas and deep-fried snacks of the fritter genus, fish balls wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, the smell of curry wafting in the air, spicy tandoori style chicken, candied fruit and jellies, dates, tea and then some, and even some out of place Chinese fare to stir things up.




We were still recovering from the lamb and humus feast at lunch but couldn’t resist taunting our stomachs, yet again. We walked around before dodging an afternoon rain shower at Little India’s Capital Coffee shop, a supposed landmark establishment. With its old electric ceiling fans, tile floors, and large diner style wall menu, the place felt more like what I imagine of French colonial Vietnamese cafes look like.

We drank more froth tea, possibly the tenth cup of the trip, but who’s counting. The place served staples like coffee and tea but also had a sweaty, seasoned grill man stationed at a hibachi on the sidewalk dishing out satay. A table of four Malay woman next to us must have ordered at least 50 of these yummy meatsicles.

At around five we caught a train to Bitang Street, a flashy upscale district in KL near Petronas towers that houses most of KL’s nightlife. We spotted a large red Borders Books neon sing outside the entrance of large building called Berjaya Times Square and decided to kill some time in the bookstore. The allure of checking out some English language magazines was reason enough to get out off the steamy streets.

A recent Wikipedia search confirmed my suspicions that this was no ordinary shopping center but rather an obnoxious mega mall. With 7.5 million square feet of built up floor area, Berjaya Times Square is the fifth largest building in the world (measured by floor area), according to Wikipedia. That this same ranking states Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 is the largest makes that obscenely excessive oasis in the desert all the more ridiculous.

The Borders it turns out is also the company’s largest franchise store in the world, though it seemed like just another mega bookstore to me.

In terms of grandiosity I suppose you could say that Berjaya Times Square is impressive. The shear size of the building coupled with the 1000+ different retail stores housed under its roof is overwhelming but also yet another sign of what Kuala Lumpur dreams of becoming: a major Asian metropolis on par with its neighbor to the south, Singapore, along with the usual East Asian suspects–Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai.

Berjaya boasts having an indoor theme park, the largest in Asia, which features, among other attractions, a large candy-colored roller coaster. To exemplify just how big this mall is, I had no idea this place even had a theme park until I later researched the building for this entry.

Photo c/o The Internet

After skimming through Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” end of the year issue and debating whether or not to stock up on some hard to find books, we decided to meander around the mall a bit longer, soaking up its opulence.



Malls throughout America are known for housing some strange stores. It’s safe to say the larger the mall, the weirder the array of shopping possibilities. It’s not uncommon to find an entire store devoted to Christmas ornaments or Yankee Candles, or a snack stand that takes something as straightforward as “the pretzel” and ups the stakes by adding maple syrup, frosting and/or pepperoni. This shopping center seemed like more of the same only with the number of random, brand-free stores outnumbering the familiar. For every Nike or Calvin Klein store there were ten oddly-named fronts selling knock-off clothing and accessories under a fancier roof. It’s as if they took the street market goods and pitted them against big names like Polo and Dockers.

Places with names like Magma, Tough, French Kiss, Fellini’s Boutique, Old Scull Clothing, Slipper World, Vamp, Private Shop International (underwear), and the trio of boutiques Rum, Romp and Rock and Roll, were filled with loud teenagers, and the flashy attire that they pined for. The place was what I expected Minnesota’s Mall of America must be like, only with a more global clientele in lieu of overweight Midwesterners.

Still had I known that I would have found a store in which customers pay money to dangle their feet into a pool filled with ravenous fish, I might not have been so quick to write this shopping center off as, “just another mall.”

We stumbled upon the fish spa massage parlor tucked away in what looked to be the shopping center’s very own red light district. This wing of the mall housed a number of kinky Japanese clothing stores with names like S & M Dream Shop and a tiny, neon-lit sex shop that had customers spilling out of its entrance. It could be that edible underwear are in season. 

The massage parlor was one of two in the area and had an unassuming sign out front offering up foot massages (which are big in KL), full-body rub-downs, and something called ear candling. It was the large fish tank with its padded bench island in its center that managed to catch our attention.

It took me a bit longer to fully comprehend what the hell was going on. Stuart, having lived in East Asia coming on almost four years now, instantly knew what the tank was for and without much discussion coaxed me into booking a 20 minute session.

I wouldn’t uncover the details surrounding Garra Rufa, or Doctor Fish as they’re more commonly referred to as, till an Internet search long after the trip. Like the medicinal use of leaches, Doctor Fish have long been called upon for the revitalization of weathered-skin. The ancient act of “fish nibble feet” spa treatment has roots in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East where the fish originate. This particular species of fish have a taste for human flesh and have been used for years as an effective way to remove dead skin from bathers at spas. At the time I was only focussed on the reality facing me: I was about to pay the proprietor (who I was convinced was taking the piss out of us– “come on man, this tank is just for decoration. You don’t actually expect me to go through with this” I thought.) to feed his fish with the flesh from my rank, well-travelled trotters.

While a place of this nature was just screaming, “anything goes,” I was surprised to find that the proper etiquette before the feeding frenzy is to cleanse the feet with a hose in a back room. Had I previously waltzed around barefoot in cyanide I might have understood this precaution, but I found it hard to believe that these fish had standards.

Following the instructions, I rinsed my long, bony feet, rolled up my pants to the knees, took a seat on the island and dangled my toes over the water, taunting the little buggers, and procrastinating the eventual plunge.

The tank was divided into two sections. The front section looked out to the mall’s corridors, granting strolling shoppers the chance to watch the spectacle of a couple of clueless foreigners wriggle and squawk as fish chew their feet. Its tank featured fish of the minnow variety–small and plenty of them. These younger, more ambitious fish clearly had stronger appetites and were handy for getting into the hard to reach spots like the web of skin between toes. The back tank had bigger fish, which I gathered served no other purpose other than to make me squirm like a child getting a splinter removed.

I started with the little buggers. They wasted no time in surveying the terrain of my size 13 feet jumping right in, their little mouths picking away at every corner. The scary part of the initial ride was how quickly the feeling went from just plain weird to surprisingly comfortable.

After feeding the kids for about five minutes, I moved over to the papas next door, unsure of how their bites would compare. While slower with their eating habits, and hardly as efficient as their brood, the sensation that the bigger fish issue out was enough to completely irk me out.

With their teeth clearly more developed, their mouths bigger, these diligent monsters went right for the heel and were more adventurous with their trip up leg hair alley.

After about ten minutes I was ready to stop but when the woman massaging a man’s big toe in the massage stall closest to the pool asked me why I had removed my feet so soon, I realized that throwing in the towel early would be weirder in the eyes of the locals than continuing the squirming and hissing.

When the proprietor’s timer went off my feet flew out of the water, my toes pruned, cherry-colored and a hell of a lot smoother than before.

When later asked about the meal the wee diners wrote the meal up as “adventurous,” complimenting the notes of foot funk and calling the amuse bouche of hiker’s blister on left Achilles’ tendon, as “a pleasant surprise.” Second seating enjoyed the big toe knuckle hair and were floored by the lower shin region’s smorgasbord of pre-softened skin and sock lint.

After drying off and putting our shoes back on we were set to leave but were drawn in, yet again, after reading a sign offering a discounted ear candling.

Ear candling, aka ear coning, aka, sticking a friggin’ lit candle up your ear canal, is supposedly a therapeutic method of cleansing the ear of toxins, such as wax, dirt and sinister ear goblins. Unlike the fish spa treatment’s instant tickling results, the jury is still out on whether or not this “alternative medicinal” procedure works or if it is simply another new-age body cleansing scam. After the feet-feeding-frenzy–having just done that–my immediate response to the, “ear candling? Come on!” proposition was, “eh, what the hell.”

Ear candling is quite simple really. The patient, or should I say sucker, lies on his/her side while a perfect stranger who may or may not be licensed but does in fact own some fish, sticks a conical paper candle of sorts deep into the ear canal and then lights it up like a cigarillo. As the candle slowly burns its way down, the sensation is that of, well, something long burning its way closer to the eardrum.

After about fifteen minutes the rolled earwax blunt is removed and the remnants–charred pieces of ash and wax, which may or may not come from the ear–are shown to the customer as proof of what just went down.

According to a Montreal Gazette article entitled, Don’t put a candle in your ear and save $25, “as of 2008, there are at least two cases in which people have set their houses on fire while ear candling, one of which resulted in death.” It’s in the humble opinion of this author that records like the aforementioned article should be burned so as not to give future generations the ability to say, “you’re kidding me, right?”

Coupled with the fish spa, the experience cost about US$20.

After realizing how long we had just spent in the shopping center we made our way out and checked out some more of the surrounding area before heading back to our nightly hookah spot at the Kampung Baru Night Market.

Over another fruit-themed water pipe, I ordered a couple satays and some fresh squeezed orange juice, while we chatted with the hookah stand’s owner. He talked about the Kampung Baru market being a popular hangout for young people and of how down-to-earth Malaysians are. I couldn’t agree more with him.

The next day was my last day in KL. We grabbed a coffee and a small bite to eat at a cafe outside of Little India that was written up in the New York Times as serving up a sinfully delicious treat called roti baba. This “light” breakfast monstrosity is essentially a greasy, fried dough pocket stuffed with greasy pork and grilled onions. The Malaysian calzone is then doused with Worcestershire sauce. Damn.

Afterwards we made our way into Little India so I could pick up some goodies at the local grocery store, mainly candy and treats for my students and co-workers, not to mention some Tongkat Ali ginseng coffee, another supposed Malaysian specialty. Before heading back to grab my bags we had one last feast at a hole-in-the-wall South Indian cafe, which I feared would rid my pores with pungent curry before boarding a plane but ultimately seemed like a sacrifice I was willing to make. The things we do for food.

The flight back to Taipei was relaxing with lots of fond memories of this amazing place to keep my mind occupied. Back home I immediately uploaded some photos and replayed the trip.

Malaysia gave me a taste of more travels to come in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is a lively metropolis, and his home to people from all over the planet. Its diversity and peacefulness in spite of this varied make-up was refreshing and kind of eye-opening. While I might not have gotten the true Malaysian experience (the peninsula’s interior might be a separate trip down the line), I was definitely treated to a truly global experience.

Hong Kong Part II

Weekend Getaway:
Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Part II

On the Trail of Anthony Bourdain–The Chungking Mansions-A Return to Spanish–Warner Sits Like Buddha–An Outlet Mall–Where the People Buy Gold Fish–Night Ferry Across Causeway Bay-A View From the Top

Monday

Monday was my day to explore solo, which I was keen to do considering I had yet to truly venture away from the Westernized side of Hong Kong. First on my list was a little field trip on the footsteps of one Anthony Bourdain and the enchanting bamboo noodle-maker he encountered during his stint in Hong Kong.

The scene I’m referring is one of the more mesmerizing moments on his culinary travelogue series, “No Reservations.” A simple man makes simple noodles by hand. Everyday he mixes the most basic ingredients to make one of Asia’s staple foods in his cramped apartment. The difference between his technique and that of a utility noodle factory is his use of a large bamboo rolling pin of sorts to fold the flour, egg, water, and salt mixture together. The dough isn’t mixed but rather kneaded together and, well, you can take a look for yourself.

The act is drenched in, “last of its kind” family tradition and I felt obligated to make the pilgrimage.

A quick survey of some foodie websites and message boards gave me an address in Tai-Po, a university district in the northern part of the New Territories, an area I had been intending to check out anyway. This seemed like an ideal place to grab a late breakfast and uncover the less-traveled side of Hong Kong.

It’s amazing how the city transforms when you leave HK central with its many Western reminders. The New Territories truly have the China feel I was looking for.

The aforementioned gentleman is the proprietor of Ping Kee Noodles, which is your average, run-of-the-mill noodle stand. To be honest it was also a bit of a challenge to find.

Hong Kong has a number of giant indoor markets, which were built to rid the already crowded streets of food vendors (sadly Hong Kong doesn’t have the street food scene that makes Taiwan such a treasure of a place to live in). On the outside these buildings look like giant park lot structures. They’re void of windows and have very few signs indicating what they house. The first floor is butcher and fishmonger territory, which is always a fun place to take a stroll. Seafood in this part of the world never fails to impress. The variety can be overwhelming and just furthers the notion that our planet’s seas are still quite mysterious.

The locals seemed a bit puzzled by this tall foreigner leaning over their stock with a camera and a face plastered with curiosity. Surely they must have been thinking, “Boy, he must be lost…they’re just fish, you know…Why is he wearing such large hiking boots? Why does his hair stand up by itself?”

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, markets are a great place to be. It’s prime turf for people watching as you are granted that rare peek into the day-to-day lives of everyday folk. At 10:30A.M. on a Monday, the Tai-Po market was alive with the sound of commerce.

People were yelling orders at shirtless vendors slinging an array of flesh from land and sea, the floor was wet with run-off ice melt, and there was a curious mix of odors–some pleasant, others foreign. This is the setting.

Fruit vendors, miscellaneous dry goods sellers and knock-off purse pushers occupied the second floor, which only required a quick walkthrough. The third floor is where the magic was though.

The open warehouse space was flooded with flimsy plastic tables and chairs and the walls were lined with various food stalls selling damn near anything you could possibly want to eat. Cheap dim sum snacks, ducks dripping off hooks, steaming woks at every corner, the bustle of the Cantonese eating and socializing and of course, noodles.

Despite its notoriety around Hong Kong and by way of Bourdain’s trustworthy global recommendations, Ping Kee Noodles is a fairly unassuming place. I ordered a simple bowl of thin bamboo noodles served in broth with small fish wontons. As far as noodles go, these were very good. Mind blowing, not quite, then again noodles are one of those essentials that ranges from bad, so-so and good. The notion that this man’s simple trade was passed down from generation to generation gives the noodles more of a romantic feel than an overpowering sensation to the taste buds.

I spoke briefly with the man himself (his English was minimal and Mandarin doesn’t fly in this part of the China), who upon seeing me instantly pointed to a framed news-clipping of he and Bourdain standing next to his noodle work station, which looks more like an archaic painter’s drafting table, an appropriate comparison I think.

***

After a couple hours spent surveying the rest of Tai Po’s outdoor markets, I boarded the MTR and headed back towards Hong Kong Central by way of the Kowloon district. Kowloon is directly across from Central and seems to be the bridge between the surreal Westernized business district of Central and China proper. If Central is Manhattan, the large Kowloon is an outer borough, possibly its Queens.

My first stop was the world famous Chungking Mansions, which the notable setting of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai’s masterful film, “Chungking Express.”

The mansion, which is more a run down apartment complex situated in an otherwise fancy drag, is literally a giant melting pot. Its hotels, hostels and guesthouses (all three of which seem to be equals in terms of quality/safety) remain Hong Kong’s most affordable lodging for travelers. Its short and long term residents, not to mention the vendors and shop keepers that inhabit the bottom floors, span the globe in their diversity.

North and West Africans, Indians and Pakistanis, Turks, Persians, Mainlanders, Southeast Asianers, you name it, are all under one roof. It serves as a cheap place to lay one’s head during the transition period for immigrants and is also supposedly one of the cheaper indoor markets in Hong Kong City.

The bottom floors are flooded with vendors of countless tongues pushing used cell phones, replicas of coveted Prada and Gucci handbags, DVDs, computers, and pretty much all other odds and ends you could imagine. There are also a number of food stands serving up simple, but tasty native dishes from Indian/Pakistani curry pilaf and Turkish kebab stands to Ethiopian fast food.

I spent a good hour in and outside of this massive complex, which, it’s safe to say, somehow manages to avoid being shut down by the Hong Kong Fire Department annually (a peek inside some of the upper level hostel floors, by way of an antiquated elevator, furthered this observation). I got a steaming plate of Dhal Makhani at a South Indian food stand situated next to a guy selling rebuilt fuzz-busters and handheld GPS units. The food vendor, I learned, has lived in Hong Kong for 23 years, speaks fluent English, French, Cantonese and is even capable in Mandarin. When I told him that in Taiwan we don’t have anything even remotely similar to the Chunking Mansions he said, “you would have a hard time finding a place like this anywhere else in the world.”

Clearly I had found the other side of Hong Kong, the underbelly to all the glamour that makes up most of the island. I instantly realized how unique a city Hong Kong really is. Its varied history of foreign occupations has left the city a multi-cultural oasis in the middle of the Far East. Its ports, economic ties with Mainland China and pretty much the rest of the modern world, gives the city quite a unique look and feel with a lot more to see under its surface.

Eventually I left the Chungking Mansions (though I could have stayed longer) and made my way down Nathan Road, the major drag in this area, to the waterside of Kowloon where the Hong Kong Museum Campus is.

I took a quick run through The Hong Kong Museum of Fine Art, checking out a current exhibit titled, “The Prosperous Cities: A Selection of Paintings from the Liaoning Provincial Museum.” A nice dose of history was a perfect cap to the afternoon. The paintings, many of which were nothing more than faded, yet detailed glimpses into day-to-day life of the Chinese during the Ming and Qing dynasties, were fascinating. The merchant scenes depicted were a nice supplement to what I had just experienced in Tai Po and at Chungking, the latter being the results of globalization on merchant life in China.

I took the ferry back to Central to meet up with Stuart. The choppy boat ride offered stunning views of both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and I believe was actually cheaper than the MTR. Nothing like a good ferry ride. Memories of a similar ride crossing the Bosphorus came to mind.

Monday night I accompanied Stuart to a weekly Spanish class he attends. Spanish speakers are hard to find in Taipei and ever since starting my fairly intensive Chinese courses (six months of classes, five days a week, three hours a day) the linguistically savvy part of my brain seems to want to merge Spanish and Mandarin together into one incomprehensible mash up. Sunday night Stuart and I exchanged words in Spanish and while my listening and speaking skills were still sharp, I found myself adding Mandarin words into the mix. Without even thinking about it I might, for example substitute the first person singular pronoun, “I” in Spanish (yo) with the “I” in Mandarin (wo) or replying to interesting conversation with “zhende ma?” (really? in Mandarin).

Stuart’s night class was a mix of British businessmen brushing up on their foreign languages, a handful of local Cantonese, two Americans and Stuart, who was the youngest in the class. The teacher, a cordial woman from Colombia welcomed me to the class and an elderly British man, a retired barrister who has lived in Hong Kong for 30+ years brought a celebratory spread of Spanish munchies as a, “welcome to our class” treat.

As we munched on Iberian Manchego cheese (which I hadn’t tasted since the States but was a regular staple in my refrigerator in Chicago) and chorizo sausage, and drank Rioja we read through a couple Spanish reading passages on Cristóbal Colón and did a short exercise reviewing the vocabulary of weird body parts. The three words for different parts of the cheek and upper face were new.

Attending a Spanish class in the middle of downtown Hong Kong would be the last thing most tourists would do but I have to say it was a memorable experience.

TUESDAY

Tuesday I rose early and headed by MTR to Lantau Island, one of the outlying islands that is adjacent to the airport and is home to not only Hong Kong Disneyland but also the giant 34-meter-tall bronze Tian Tan Buddha, perched high in the hills overlooking the Po Lin Monastery.

For all the glory of the awesome spectacle of this oversized Buddha, Lantau Island seems to be nothing more than an extension of Central’s shopping district, only outletified!

I exit the train station and immediately am thrust into a surprisingly large outlet mall that is literally connected to the train station. Nike, New Balance, Timberland, The Body Shop, you name it. I felt comfortable knowing that after I paid my respects to the holy Buddha I could successfully purchase a new pair of trainers, on discount no less. There was even a Mrs. Fields Cookie depot, which, along with East Asia’s fascination with KFC, essentially equates to the globalization of the protruding gut. With Disneyland a mere bus ride away one could easily be persuaded (by the Lantau urban planners I might add) to skip the Buddha all together, purchase a sun visor at the North Face store, and head towards Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. for the complete mock-American experience.

The giant Buddha is something to marvel at. It’s just one of many large Buddhas scattered across the globe and a quick Wikipedia search clued me in to some of the other even more eye popping examples, take, for example, the Leshan Giant Buddha in Leshan, China, which was first built in 713 and took 90 years to complete.

I spent a good hour or so at the top of the peak where the Buddha resides. The views of the valley below were stunning as were the adjacent smaller statuettes that praise and make offerings to the big boy Buddha.

I struck up a conversation with an Argentine who asked me to take a photo of him with his iPhone. He had been traveling primarily in Japan and S. Korea and was working his way down and eventually towards Sweden where he had what sounded like a cushy engineering job lined up. I didn’t ask but he informed me that he had been studying Swedish by way of an audio lesson program he discovered which he claims to be the best way to learn a new language. The more travelers I meet, the more I am impressed by certain foreigners’ aptitude for picking up new languages.

Europeans have the advantage of small countries and open borders, which means if you are born in say the landlocked country of Switzerland, it is not uncommon for you to graduate from university with perfect fluency in German, French, Italian and English. That this Argentine spoke clear English and was picking up Swedish by way of essentially in-flight language lessons, made the linguistically challenged American in me jealous.

On my way out I talked with a father and son duo from Belfast who were doing a two-week East Asia tour that included Shanghai and Tokyo. Their masterful grasp of English with a wicked sounding accent made me feel more at ease.

***

After I had gotten my Buddha fix for the day I headed back towards the northern parts of Kowloon to a famous outdoor street market where I heard one could find just about anything they wanted, with that beautiful fine-line between legal and illegal. As I exited the MTR station and was immediately offered a supposed new pair of Bose headphones and later some coke, I couldn’t help but remember John Goodman’s Walter character in the Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” infamous line, “You want a toe, I can get you a toe by three o’clock, with nail polish. Believe me, there are ways.”

Hong Kong’s notoriety as a shopping enthusiast’s Mecca is understandable. Kowloon is flooded with electronics pushers of all sorts. There were old cell phones and used cell phone accessories. VHS players with serial numbers that had been scratched off years ago sat next to other relics of the home entertainment golden age–Laserdisc players and even a Betamax. There were kitchen appliances and cookware sets, neon lights, and heavily discounted fleece jackets, which I would later learn were often the spawn of mad fusions of various companies’ products, say, for example, a North Face jacket with sleeves sewn on from a Colombia Gortex product and Mountain Hardware zippers.

A used camera vendor caught my eye with his collection of vintage to modern lenses and bodies. I fondled an old manual Leica and was instantly given a pitch from the Cantonese gentleman who told me, “no scratches…good photos…good photos. 1000HKD,” which is a little over $100US.

Sprinkled throughout the glut of used electronics were various hole-in-the-wall food stands. I picked up two steamed buns (which in this part of the world never cease to tickle my taste buds), one meat (meat as in I don’t know what it was), the other filled with sweet red beans, and continued down the massive street back towards the MTR.

Later after another couple hours of walking I met up with Stuart and we made our way to the Temple Street market for dinner. Our first stop, however, was a curious sounding goldfish market, which proved to be exactly what it sounds like.

One thing that I’ve noticed living in East Asia is that certain markets or streets will be famous for one thing and one thing only. In Taipei there is one heavily concentrated computer related market, and similarly one that only caters to cameras and camera accessorizes. These markets essentially bring in all the competition into one small area, making it a one-stop shopping bazaar for exactly what you are looking for. This might not seem like a viable business model but it works. The Goldfish Market is no exception.

The Goldfish Market in Mongkot is essentially a four-city-block strip of goldfish sellers. It’s a sea of overcrowded aquariums, anxious onlookers looking for the perfect specimen and with a subtle smell of flakey fish food and brine shrimp lingering in the air. Goldfish in East Asia are considered prized possessions, especially when allowed to maturate to ridiculous mutant sizes. The Longshan Temple in Taipei has an impressive waterfall and goldfish pond outside of its main gates. At said pond I always manage to locate a great black spotted one that has the distinguished body girth of a fish that seems to have spent a lifetime devouring its foe and offspring.

After a surreal stroll along goldfish mile, we headed towards Temple Street, which is probably the most touristy night market in Hong Kong and seemed like a perfect capper to the day/trip. We ate at an unassuming three-wok, open door restaurant with sidewalk seating and big bottles of beer for the offering.

Later after doing the market rounds we made are way back towards Central by way of the night ferry across Causeway Bay and stopped for a surprise outdoor glass elevator ride to the top of Hong Kong’s Hopewell Center building. This is one of those rare experiences that only a local would know about. The building is quite tall and offers a great view of the city lights at night by way of an unnerving outside glass elevator that hugs the building’s exterior wall. While one could exit the elevator and have a drink at the overpriced top floor bar, we opted to just go up for the ride and quick view.

My flight back to Taipei the following morning was easy and when I got home I had originally given myself a tight window of time to leave the airport and rush to work for my two o’clock class. Luckily while on the airport express bus back to Taipei my boss sent me a text message informing me that my first class would be canceled for the week on account of two of my students–Eileen and Angel–contracting oink-oink flu. With a couple hours of free time I went to my apartment, showered, unpacked, uploaded some photos and let the trip soak in some more.

My first foray outside of Taiwan made me anxious to see more, and then some.

This is a terribly exciting and lively part of the world. The clashing of modern the world with traditional sensibilities is everywhere you go, especially in China. Visiting Hong Kong’s Western suburbs gave me a glimpse into what Mainland China might be like (Shenzen continues to fascinate me) and I am already planning an elaborate overland travel route through the monolithic country that is hovering over Taiwan as I write this prose.

I hope to visit Hong Kong again, but if this were my last trip to the massive metropolis by the sea, I feel I did the it justice.