Monday, November 16, 2009

Surviving the Asian workplace

English Digest workers
At the office.

What's wrong with Asian culture? I read a thought-provoking book recently called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, by Jane Hyun. While many Asian-Americans are well-educated and hold respectable white-collar jobs, there's very few of them in senior management positions. Can anyone name five other Asian-American CEOs besides Jerry Yang of Yahoo! Inc.?

The book focuses on how to resolve the differences between Confucian values and American values in the workplace. Confucian teaching stresses respect for authority, keeping your opinion to yourself, the importance of the group and preserving harmony. This clashes with the American emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom, freedom of speech, creative thinking and showing your individuality.

In Asian culture, people are trained to think that as long as they deliver excellent performance, you will be recognized and rewarded. But in an American workplace, you have to network with your colleagues, sell yourself to your managers and take leadership roles on projects in order to get a promotion. 

Your social skills are as important as your technical skills, which many Asians fail to grasp. This is why so many Asian-Americans get passed over for promotions in the states. To look at the bigger picture, I this can explain why Asian companies are good at production and engineering, but Western companies excel at innovation and marketing.

The book spurred me to think about the flip side, being a Westerner in an Asian work environment. My friends and I have frequently discussed (complained?) about this very issue. I've written down some of the culture clashes below. Several of these problems exist in Western workplaces as well, but I think they are especially extreme in Asian offices.

Your opinion does NOT matter

This is probably the biggest shock to Americans who have always enjoyed free speech. It's an even bigger shock to Gen Y people who are fresh out of college, who were brought up to believe that everyone actually cares about what they think.

But in Asia, the boss is God and they demand worship, not collaboration. The boss makes the decisions, then the employees execute his orders. End of story.

While your co-workers may ask you to check over their English writing or other things like that, be prepared to have zero input on the larger strategic issues of the company.

What a waste of our talent! I often catch myself thinking, "It would be so much better if they would just . . . " Best to keep it to yourself, because no one wants to listen to someone talk about how it's better to do it the Western way.

The annoying thing is that they say they're hiring you for your Western knowledge and expertise. But whenever you share your opinion, it's rejected or you're told it wouldn't work in Asia. No further explanation.

As Asian companies become more powerful and buy up more Western companies, there's bound to be clashes between Asian managers and Western workers. This Businessweek article titled My Way or the Highway at Hyundai explores this topic further, detailing the clashes between American executives and their Korean bosses.

Disorganized, but somehow functions

When you're in an Asian work environment, sometimes things seem really chaotic. No one knows what's going on, you can't contact people you need to reach, your colleagues have no idea what the government regulations are, etc. 

I've worked in successful and unsuccessful offices in Asia, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference by looking at the surface. Somehow, these enterprises manage to keep on going in spite of appearing badly managed and staffed with people who look like they don't know what they're doing.

The best analogy would be to Asian traffic. It seems crazy and dangerous, but there's surprisingly few accidents. That's because everyone is thinking on the same wavelength. They know when to accelerate, brake and weave around immovable objects. 

It's the same at work. Just when you're pissed off and ready to quit, they'll suddenly give you that thing that you urgently needed. You have to give yourself a few months before you can tune in to their wavelength. Once you lock on to it, you'll be set.

A verbal promise is worth more than a written agreement

In American society, we tend to abide by MGM movie mogul Louis B. Mayer's quote: "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on." You have to nail down every deal point in writing so that you can sue if the other party reneges.

It's the reverse in Asia. Contracts are meaningless. And the courts are hardly fair and unbiased toward foreigners. Lawsuits aren't common, because Asia doesn't have the litigation culture of America.

What your partner promises you is what will actually happen. Instead of arguing over every point of the contract, it's better to concentrate on building a good relationship with the boss and his assistant(s). If you have them on your side, you'll be fine. If you don't, then even the best contract in the world won't save you from being screwed over.

I appreciate how difficult it is to make this leap of faith, since outright lying does happen. So it's hard to be certain. 

For example: a boss once showed me a contract with a much lower salary than the job ad had quoted. When I pointed this out, the boss assured me that this was just the contract they would give to the government. (Likely reason: tax evasion) 

Later, I'd sign a "real" contract that stated my full salary. In the end, I signed it, intending to quit if they actually did mess with my salary. But lo and behold, she paid me the full salary I was told, and on time too.

Lack of advancement

Growing up in American society, where upward mobility is taken for granted, it's hard to accept that the only way to get a better job in Asia is to quit and join another company. If you work for a small local company, you get pigeon-holed in one position and you never get to move up to another job or get salary raises. 

Higher positions are usually reserved for locals. Only big multinational companies have the paths to upper management and open attitude to foreigners where you can actually advance your career.

Lack of advancement is a problem for places that have shallower job markets for foreigners, like in Taiwan. I often tell friends that the jobs for Westerners here are limited to teaching English, and some editing and translation. That's about it.

If you want to move up to more professional jobs, it might be necessary to change location altogether. Cosmopolitan urban centers like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore have deeper job markets with a greater variety of jobs for Westerners. But you often need considerable work experience (that's not teaching English) and language fluency to get those jobs.

The harder but more rewarding route is to get a job back in the West, work your way up in the company and try to get an overseas assignment. But this strategy requires a serious long-term commitment. You have to apply to companies that have foreign branches in the countries you're interested in, study the language in your spare time, talk your way into any business trips to that destination and lobby your bosses to send you abroad. On the plus side, your company will often arrange visas, flights, housing, etc. so that you'll have a soft landing.

The downside of more developed markets is that they demand higher performance from employees, which is more stressful. At local firms in emerging economies, you can get away with being a little sloppy and lazy.

One possible shortcut is to do an MBA in the foreign city you want to work in. Once you're there, you have the advantage of being "on the ground." You can network with your classmates, check out possible employers in person, and get internships with the companies you've targeted. You can move there right away and start job-hunting while you're studying, instead of waiting years for an overseas posting.

An extra boost to your resume is if that city/country specializes in what you want to do. Examples: entertainment business in Los Angeles, wealth management in Zurich, Chinese business in Shanghai or Hong Kong, and natural resources management in Sydney.

But it's absolutely important that you study at a reputable university that's accredited by an organization like the AACSB. You don't want to sink all that time and money into a degree that won't be recognized by employers. If you're after a particular concentration, like finance, marketing or entrepreneurship, make sure the program has that too.

One way around the accreditation issue is to go to a university that runs a joint MBA program with a partnering business school in the West. Then you can earn degrees that are recognized in both places. The UCLA-NUS program in Singapore is an example. Although many of these are actually EMBA programs that are aimed more at senior executives, rather than people with little business experience.

I'd also strongly recommend that you study the language of your destination as much as you can before you go there. You'll get much more out of your experience abroad, make more friends and adapt better if you do. 

Some MBAs combine business classes and language classes, but I think that's a tough balance. Better to concentrate on the language first, so you can focus on the MBA classes later.

For more information, check out this article:
Get an MBA while vagabonding

The "last to know" syndrome

This is partly due to the language barrier, forgetfulness on the part of your co-workers, or their lack of confidence in their English. Sometimes it's about deliberately hiding information from you. Whatever the reason, be prepared to be the last person in your office to learn about any important company news. Example: the day after a meeting, a co-worker will ask why you didn't go, even though no one told you there was going to be a meeting!

Hot tip: seek out a Westerner who's worked at that company for a while and ask them what's up. If you ask politely, most fellow Westerners will be sympathetic to your confusion and give you clear advice on what to do. They'll also be more familiar with issues specific to your company. If you just ask your Western friends who aren't co-workers, you'll get conflicting stories.

I learned this the hard way. After spending months trying to get a Taiwanese work permit, I finally turned to an Englishman at my company. In one short conversation, he was able to cut through all the confusion and give me a clear game plan of what to do. I was kicking myself for not checking with him sooner. I could have saved myself a load of trouble.

The boss is always watching

I'm not sure if this is just a Taiwanese thing, but traditional bosses here like to sit at the very back of the office where they can see what every worker is doing. Everybody's desks are often clustered together to make it easier for the boss to watch everyone.

This makes it harder for employees to slack off and surf the Internet, which is probably the point. But it also makes the environment more stressful, because you feel like the boss always has his eyes on what you're doing. The West is much different, where some bosses hide themselves in their offices, hate talking to colleagues and only come out to attend meetings.

If you're an English teacher, be prepared to have nosy mothers stare at you through a window while you're teaching their kids.

After-hours socializing

When your company hosts lunches, dinners or parties, you're expected to attend. It gives a chance for colleagues to get to know each other better. If you don't go, your co-workers lose face. The worst situation is when you're the only foreigner and everyone else is speaking in the native language. 

At restaurants, I try to strategically sit close to people I like to talk to, which makes the ordeal less painful. But sometimes I'm foiled by the boss, who will insist I sit close to him. Ostensibly, this is to show I'm an honored guest. However, I sometimes suspect it's just so that the boss can show off his English by talking to me in front of the staff.

In Japan and South Korea, I've heard it's more serious. You're practically required to go drinking with your boss after work. You have to accept every toast he makes and match him drink for drink. The ability to hold your liquor can mean more to him than your competence at the job.

China has this too, but I think it's more of a Northeast Chinese thing, as that area is closer to Japan and South Korea. I find this happens less often in Taiwan because people aren't big drinkers here.

I originally thought karaoke was only a Japanese obsession, but I've seen it all over Asia. In China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, it's known as KTV. I find singing in English to already be embarrassing, but here, most of the songs are in Mandarin!

Companies expect loyalty while treating you like crap

As skilled labor becomes more scarce in certain industries like technology or finance, Western companies are waging The War for Talent. Bonuses, stock options, rapid promotions, they'll offer anything to find and keep the best people. Retaining talented workers is a big priority for top Western firms, but not Asian ones.

That's because in Asian culture, employees feel grateful to the companies that gave them jobs. Yes, you may have to work lots of unpaid overtime, give up your weekends and vacations, and take the blame for everything that goes wrong, but the company hired you, so you owe them. The situation is changing though, as globalization makes the idea of lifetime employment more obsolete.

Low salaries, few benefits

If you were hired in the West and sent to work in Asia, you'll get a comfortable expat package. But if you're hired locally by a local company, you tend to get a lower salary and fewer benefits compared to a Western company.

Unpaid overtime, no vacations for the first year, and having to do extra tasks for your boss that are unrelated to your job are the norm for non-teaching jobs. 

Salaries are laughably low by Western standards, but your local friends are guaranteed to tell you, "But that's really high for Taiwan!" (or insert another country). To be fair, that is true. I've heard of engineers and people with Ph.D's making less money than I do.

If you work in Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan, there is one huge benefit: Universal Health Care. While my friends from Canada, the U.K. or Australia may be less impressed by this, as an American, I think it's amazing!

I once had to get an operation in Taiwan. Luckily, I was covered by the Taiwan National Health Insurance. The total cost of the surgery, a 3-day hospital stay in a semi-private room, and enough pills to start a drug empire was only US$120. My mother said that the equivalent treatment in the states would have cost US$50,000 or more if I wasn't covered by health insurance.

Getting paid once a month sucks!

Nothing forces you to budget your money more carefully like getting paid only once a month. This is not weird for my U.K. friends, where this is the norm. But for Americans, it's a bit of a struggle at first. You really have to allocate your money wisely, to make sure you can cover your rent and meet all your living expenses until the next payday.

There's a big temptation to blow your paycheck on going out to pubs and clubs. At least in America, the next paycheck is only 2 weeks away. In Asia however, your next paycheck is a whole month away, quite a long wait if you've already spent all your money. 

And alcohol is not cheap in Asia, despite the lower cost of living in certain countries. You can know when people are low on funds when they start turning down invitations to go out.

Visas are of life-and-death importance to you, but not your employer

For expats, visas are a pain in the ass but of absolute importance. Overstaying a visa can mean a trip out of the country at best to being banned from the country at the worst. What adds to the fear factor is that no one is 100% sure what the regulations are and which rules the authorities will ignore or enforce.

That being said, I've had pretty good experiences getting visas through working as an English teacher. But getting a visa for any job that's more professional is a nightmare. The requirements for a professional visa are higher, because you have to prove that you have unique skills that a local person doesn't have. Expect to supply a lot of documentation to the authorities.

English cram schools have a high turnover of English teachers, so they're used to dealing with the visa process all the time. The visa requirements for English teachers are also lower, typically an original college degree and a medical exam at a local hospital.

Local employers that aren't multinationals have less experience with applying for visas. These companies have much lower turnover than cram schools, probably because foreigners who get out of teaching English hold on to non-teaching jobs longer. As a result, the employers don't need to get visas as often.

When they do, they'll often fob off the job on some overworked employee who will be assigned to apply for your visa. That person will usually have no idea how to do this. In one case, I had one Taiwanese co-worker call up managers in other departments and ask, "Do you have any foreign staff? How did you get their visas?" In another job I had, they gave the visa-applying task to an employee who'd only been hired a month earlier. That's scary!

The only advice I can give is to be ready with as much documentation as you can, especially letters of recommendation from past employers. Keep every official-looking paper that your boss gives you. The other thing is to check with your manager regularly on how the visa process is going. To avoid being rude, I usually phrase it by asking if they need any other documents from me.

Actually, the best thing to do is to make sure you leave every job on good terms. No matter how much you hate your boss now, try to be polite because every employer is a potential reference to help you get a better job. 

Whenever I give notice that I'm leaving a job, I make sure to ask the boss to be a reference. In a small place like Taipei, a vengeful ex-boss can really damage your job prospects. On the other hand, a supportive ex-boss can open closed doors.

For getting professional visas, I've often had to contact previous employers at the last minute and have them rush to fax over letters of recommendation to me. They would never have helped me if I'd burned my bridges. 

Remember, they have the power to ruin your life by simply doing nothing to assist you. It may be years before you need them to be a reference, but when you do, you will really need them bad.

Is there a better way to work?

Since working in Asia can be stifling, I've wondered about alternatives. Out of curiosity, I started looking for companies that had a more innovative approach to work. Google and Southwest Airlines are two famous role models, but I tried to uncover more examples.

By far the most radical work environment I've found was Semco, a Brazilian company that makes industrial products. It's run as a boss-less corporation, where employees make all the decisions and focus 100% on getting the job done. No managers, no meetings, no bullshit. The company has become wildly successful, as this BBC profile states:
Semco: Management of the Future? (PDF file)

Best Buy, the U.S. electronics retailer, is experimenting with a new system called "ROWE": the Results-Only Work Environment. Under this format, workers are freed from cubicles and schedules. Instead, they use communications technology to get their work done whenever and wherever they want. Their performance is measured by their productivity, not their attendance. Here's some articles that explain it:

Smashing the Clock (Businessweek)

Reworking Work (Time magazine)

W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabrics and outdoor products, has been running a communal, flexible work culture since its founding in 1958. It's still as revolutionary now as it was then.

The Fabric of Creativity (Fast Company) 

Anyway, hope this stuff helps, should you ever decide to work in the wacky world of Asia.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Yogyakarta: A Jolt of Java

At the top of Borobodur, the world's biggest Buddhist stupa.

Prambanan Temples (Hindu).

"Each island in Indonesia is like a different country."
--Keetie, a Dutch traveler in Myanmar (Burma)

The hard part about traveling in Indonesia is figuring out where to go. There are over 17,000 islands and endless variety. Many cultures on these islands evolved in isolation from each other, with their own distinct languages, customs, and religions. Its strategic location as a trading post also brought in a host of influences from its major merchant partners, such as China, India, and countries in the Middle East.

Indonesia is the epitome of diversity. At the western end you have Aceh, which is governed by shariah law, strict fundamentalist Muslim principles. Down east there's Bali, one of Southeast Asia's premier cultural and partying hot spots.

I decided on seeing temples, and focused on going to Yogyakarta (pronounced "Jogjakarta" or "Jogja" for short). It had the final 2 spots on my temple hit list: Borobodur and Prambanan. For some reason, I felt compelled to see all the great temples of Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat alone wasn't enough.

My first impression of Indonesia was that it was very poor, like the Philippines, but the people were very cheerful and gregarious, also like the Philippines. The main difference is the Philippines is Catholic, due to its history as a Spanish colony.

After seeing so many countries in Southeast Asia, I can see which ones are more similar to each other. Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia have much in common. Vietnam is closer to mainland China in spirit. Malaysia and Singapore share a lot of heritage. Myanmar (Burma) feels utterly unique.

Jalan Malioboro

Downtown Yogyakarta, the nicest part of town.

Yogyakarta reminded me of Myanmar in one sense: it's a tourist destination without tourists. There are guesthouses, restaurants, and tour companies, but not a lot of travelers. Maybe it's because I went in the low season, but I can't imagine Borobudur being as big a draw as Angkor Wat is.

I was lucky to befriend two cool young Canadians, Peter and Jacqueline. They had traveled all over Indonesia, and were happy to share their tips. I imagine this was how information was shared on the road, before the Internet. You had to meet people coming back from where you're going, and ask them what's up.

Peter and Jacqueline at Superman Restaurant.

Now that I've done the full circuit of temples in Southeast Asia, I can comment on them better.

Bagan in Myanmar is easily my favorite, as it's the most isolated and the main temples are quite different from each other. The barren landscape made it feel like a lost city. It was the first major temple complex I'd seen in Southeast Asia, so it had a greater impact. I'd also risked my health (and my heart!) to get there.

Sukhothai in Thailand was good, and my photos came out really well. It seemed the most professionally-managed too. Almost Western-quality set-up of lights, English signs explaining each temple, etc. The lush greenery and fewer number of visitors made it feel like an oasis.

Angkor Wat was my least favorite. Rampant tourism and the temples weren't as well-preserved as the other temple complexes I'd seen. One thing I did like was that the nearby town, Siem Reap, was more fun and lively than the gateway towns for the other temple complexes. Pub Street is my favorite backpacker ghetto in Southeast Asia.

Prambanan and Borobudur to me almost felt like two halves of one giant temple. Borobudur was all foundation, and Prambanan was all spires. It almost seemed like Borobodur was the bottom half of Angkor Wat and Prambanan was the top half.

To be a little nitpicky, I don't think of Borobudur as having the world's biggest stupa. The only stupa shape is at the very top. While large, it's nowhere near as big as the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon (see photo at link). Compare the top photo in that post to the photo at the head of this post. The difference is clear.

I think my photos describe Bobobudur and Prambanan better then I can with words. The cool thing was that there were lots of local Indonesians around the temples, but few foreigners.

Prambanan photos:





Borobudur photos:







Inside Information

Getting from the airport into town

You can take a TransJogja bus from the airport to the Jalan Malioboro, the main street in the town. The bus station is a bit tricky to find, though. As soon as you get out of the airport. Go left, you'll pass airline counters on your left. At the Kentucky Fried Chicken, turn right and go into a building.

Walk through an underground passageway until you resurface into a parking lot. Look for the glass and wood TransJogja booth. The trip costs IDR3,000 takes and about 20-30 minutes. Get off at Jalan Malioboro. Before you get on, ask the attendant in the booth to tell the driver where you want to get off.

Where to stay

Merbabu Hotel. It's on a small lane off of Jalan Sosrowjiwan ("Soswro" for short), the main budget travelers' street in Yogyakarta. Get your taxi to drop you off on that road, just next to the big yellow sign for "Superman Restaurant." Walk into that alley, and eventually you'll see the hotel on your left. I spent IDR95,000 (US$9.50) a night for a big, airy room. Only cold shower, though. Free breakfast included, and it's a good breakfast. Your choice of tasty dishes like banana chocolate pancakes, fried-egg sandwiches, etc. No Internet, but there are Internet cafes around.

I love the location of the place. There are two secondhand bookstores right outside. Lots of backpacker-oriented restaurants around, too. Although I didn't like the food at Superman Restaurant.

There is a more upscale travelers' row on Jalan Prawirotaman. The hotels, restaurants, and even the main Internet cafe all seemed a lot nicer than the places on Jalan Sosrojiwan. A bit more expensive, but seems worth it. The one drawback is that it's a bit further from things.

Getting around
The best way to get around is using TransJogja bus, a modern bus rapid transit system. The buses are small, clean, air-conditioned, and much more comfortable than the full-sized public buses. The website is bare bones, but here is a link to a list of bus routes.

The closest station to Jalan Soswrojiwan is on Jalan Malioboro, across from the Yogyakarta Library Center. Usually there will be at least one attendant who can speak enough English to help you. Just tell them were you want go. Have them write down for you what buses you may have to transfer to, and the name of the bus stop you should get off at.

What to see
The main attractions in Yogyakarta are the temple complexes of Borobodur and Yogyakarta. There are tons of tour companies on Jalan Soswrojiwan who can arrange a trip to the temples for you. They're not guided tours, they only provide door-to-door transportation to the temples.

I was there during low season, so the tour companies had trouble finding enough people to launch a tour. I ended up taking crowded, dirty public buses to the temples. A tour costs about IDR50,000 (US$5.00), while public buses cost a fraction of that, with an equivalent fraction of comfort.

I found out later that I could have taken TransJogja buses to the the temples. I'd recommend this.

--To Borobudur, take Bus 2A on Malioboro and transfer to Bus 2B later, the attendant will tell you how to do this. If I remember right, you get dropped off at Jombor bus terminal and still need to take a public bus for the final leg of the journey.

When your public bus arrives in the parking lot, touts will jump aboard and try to get you to hire them to take you around in a horse carriage. They'll make up excuses that it's too far and too hot to walk to Borobudur. Ignore them. The bus stop is only about a 10-minute walk to Borobudur. They'll also try to take you to Candi Mendut and other lesser temples. In my opinion, they're not worth seeing and can't compare to Borobudur.

--To Prambanan, take Bus 1A on Malioboro. The bus stop is about a 20-30 minute walk to Prambanan. You may want to hire a motorbike driver to give you a ride there, that's what I did.

Other things to do
Via Via Cafe on Jalan Prawirotaman is a great restaurant, and also offers a number of alternative tours. From what I read in the brochure, they sounded a lot more interesting than the standard tours all the other companies offered. One of their most popular tours is to travel overland from Yogyakarta all the way to Bali island. That's "Tour 7: Overland East Java." This trip includes a journey to Mount Bromo, an active volcano.

A good source of travel information is, which was told to me by the excellent Peter and Jacqueline.

Cinema XXI is part of the Cinema 21 chain. You can get a taxi there in 15 minutes. It's a plush, luxurious cinema, and tickets only cost IDR15,000 (US$1.50)! The downside is that movies are really old, from like 1-2 years ago. When I was there, I saw a poster saying "Coming Soon! Body of Lies," the Leonardo DiCaprio spy thriller. Good movie, by the way. Peter and I went there to see Crank 2: High Voltage.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Penang: If Hawaii was Rebooted

Penang City Hall

Chinese Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) Temple

Kapital Keling Mosque

Penang is the bizarro version of Hawaii. Both places are a blend of Western and Asian influences, except those influences are different. Hawaii is American and Japanese, while Penang is British and Chinese.

It was like being in a parallel universe. I'd wonder, "Could Hawaii have ended up like Penang?" Maybe if the British had kept control of the U.S., and if more Chinese had settled in Hawaii rather than Japanese.

After staying in the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, I was happy to be in a modern city like Georgetown. It's the main city in Penang. While Melaka felt like a fairy-tale town, Georgetown had more buzz, it was a place to take care of business.

I've lost the American habit of trying to see as many sights in the shortest time. I can easily lounge around for a whole week if I feel comfortable in a place. The Americans I meet on the road are usually in the biggest rush. When I run into English, Canadian or Australian backpackers, often they've been traveling for months or years at a time.

When my hostel or guesthouse has a nice common area and cool people around, it's easy to be a sloth. I'll happily spend hours chatting with travelers. On the other hand, annoying people drive me away. For a more detailed rant, see my past blog post, Ugly Foreigners.

Back to people I want to spend time with. Sometimes I'll wait until there is a critical mass of other backpackers who are going to see sights at the same time. Then I'll join them.

I did this with Penang Hill. It's popular to take the funicular railway to the top. Similar to the Peak tram in Hong Kong that goes up Victoria Peak, it's a train that designed to go uphill.



Arif, Susan, Chris and me on the funicular train
Arif, Susan, Chris and I on the funicular train

Penang Hill is pretty and green at the top. But there isn't much to see besides a small, colorful Indian temple. The main reason to go is to see the view of Georgetown. Riding the train and chatting with fellow backpackers was the real highlight.

Most of my friendships were made at Hutton Lodge, the hostel I stayed in. We were all relieved to be somewhere modern. Malaysia is relatively under-touristed compared to nearby Thailand. Similar to its geography, Malaysia's state of development lies somewhere between Thailand and Singapore.

We had a nicely eclectic group: Susan, a Canadian backpacker and Arif, a Pakistani-American guy who worked as a financial analyst. There was also a Scottish-Estonian couple, Kris and Kadri, who were riding a motorcycle and traveling by overland to Australia. They had passed through Iran, Pakistan, and India on the way. Their stories were amazing.

Chris (Scotland), Susan (Canada), Kadri (Estonia)  Arif (United States)
Chris (Scotland), Susan (Canada), Kadri (Estonia) and Arif (United States), waiting for the funicular train.

What I liked most about the couple was how refreshingly friendly and unpretentious they were. Other travelers who get around overland the hard way can be disgustingly smug and treat people who take planes like wimps. They didn't endlessly brag about traveling to danger zones like Iran and Pakistan. And I thought I was brave for going to Burma!

The next stop was Kek Lok Si Temple. My favorite temples are the ones that are more like complexes, with lots of buildings and rooms to explore. Kek Lok Si was like this.


A groundskeeper watering the plants.

Arif meditating at a pagoda in the center of a pool.

Me posing Buddha-style.

It did have one annoying trait in common with attractions in Beijing: separate fees for every zone you walk into. The biggest rip-off was when we paid an extra fee to go to the top level, where the guidebook said there was a massive statue of Mazu. She's the Chinese patron saint of sailors and fishermen.

The statue was surrounded by metal scaffolding! We were so pissed off. I hate it when that happens! Thankfully, the front of the statue was exposed, so we could still take pictures.

Mazu statue

What was more fun, we found a small sculpture garden with statues based on animals in the Chinese zodiac. We had a blast while posing for photos with the animals that matched our horoscopes.

Susan with the Rat
Susan with the Rat

Arif with the Ox
Arif with the Ox

Me with the Pig. Susan thought the pig looked stressed-out and constipated.

For dinner one night, we headed to a row of Chinese shophouses near our hostel.


We ended up eating "steamboat," similar to hotpot I've eaten in China and Taiwan. The owner, a jovial Malaysian Chinese man, eagerly gave us a tour of his restaurant.

Restaurant owner gives us a tour
The owner explaining the dishes to Susan.

You throw vegetables and meats into a boiling pot, then eat. The main difference was that you could also fry your food around the bottom rim of the pot. But you pick and choose various condiments to make your own personal dipping sauce, just like hotpot.

Cooking your own dinner

Susan and Kadri eating
Susan and Kadri dining on steamboat.

The magic ingredient is sha cha sauce. It's the ultimate savory sauce, made up of soybean oil, garlic, chillis, brill fish, and shrimp. You can dip anything in it, and it'll taste mind-blowingly good.

When my Canadian friend Brynn brought her mother to a hotpot restaurant in Taipei, her mother fell in love with the hotpot concept. She vowed to hit a Taiwanese supermarket and buy big jars of sha cha sauce to take back to Canada.

Nowadays, I take as many photos of food as I do of big sights. I'm turning into an Asian tourist!

The author, enjoying some great food.

Inside Information

Getting there

Butterworth, a boring industrial town on the Malaysia mainland, serves as the main transport hub to the island of Penang. All buses stop there and the railway ends there.

From Butterworth, you can take the ferry across to Georgetown, the main city on Penang. The ferry jetty is only a short walk from the Butterworth train and bus stations. The ferry is the best and most scenic way to go to Penang.

Once you arrive at the Weld Quay ferry jetty in Georgetown, ask around until you find the free shuttle bus. It goes from the ferry jetty to some of the popular spots in the city, including Komtar Complex (a shopping and transport hub) and Lebuh Chulia (main backpacker road).

Buses also go to Penang via a causeway bridge, but they drop you off at Sungei Nibong bus station, an unremarkable 15-minute drive from Georgetown. Stick with the ferry from Butterworth.

Where to stay

Hutton Lodge is the best hostel I've seen in Southeast Asia. Designed like a boutique hotel, it offers the charm of a colonial-style building, and the comfort of a modern hotel, at reasonable prices. When I first walked in, I was worried that the hostel was gone and it had been taken over by a luxury hotel. Hutton Lodge is that nice.

Banana New Guesthouse is a well-known place, but it's often fully booked. Very popular with Western expats doing a visa run from Thailand. I get the feeling that they make their real money from their visa services, and the cheap rooms are just a way to bring in customers.

Otherwise, it's best to walk around Lebuh Chulia and check out places in person. There are plenty of budget options.

Where to eat

Red Garden is the best hawker centre in Georgetown, with a huge selection of food. At night, there are cheesy singing and dancing performances on the main stage. Similar to the singing you see at Asian banquets and weddings.

Getting out

Penang is a good launch point to go to Thailand or Indonesia. Many guesthouses (like Banana New Guesthouse) offer visa services for both countries. It's probably better to just pay for a cab and go to the consulates yourself. I almost got a 60-day Indonesia visa through a visa agent. But I thought the guy was way too high-pressure, so I canceled it.

Most bus companies have ticket offices at Komtar Complex in the city center, but you may have to board the buses at Sungei Nibong bus station outside of town. Konsortium Express Bus offers a shuttle service that will take you from Komtar to the bus station, for a small fee. I imagine other bus companies do this too. Konsortium has nice buses, I recommend it.

Most Thai-bound buses go through Hat Yai, a border town on the Thai side. RM22, takes about 4 hours.

I've heard from travelers that taking buses to Thailand involves changing buses and long waiting times in between.

It might be more convenient to catch a train at Butterworth. Here's the link to the Thai Railway timetables. The Southern Line goes from Malaysia to Thailand.

Notable stops:

Surat Thani -- the main gateway to the East Coast Thai islands, like Ko Samui, Ko Tao (good place to study diving) and Ko Pha Ngan (the famous full-moon party). 14 hours.

From Surat Thani, you can also take a bus (3-4 hours) to Krabi, the gateway to West Coast Thai islands like Phuket and Ko Phi Phi.

Bangkok -- Thailand's capital. 23 Hours.

Visas: At the time of writing, you only got 14-day visas on arrival if you get there by overland. If you're going to spend more time in Thailand, get a visa in Penang beforehand. You get 30 days if you fly in.


Ferries from Penang go to Medan in Java. RM150, 5 hours. Boats depart from Georgetown's Swettenham jetty and land in Belawan. The rest of the journey to Medan is done by bus (cost should be included with boat ticket).

Visas: You can get a 30-day Indonesian visa on arrival. If you're planning on traveling around the country for longer, get the 60-day visa in Penang before you arrive.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cameron Highlands: A Natural High

Wandering around a tea plantation
Backpackers wandering around the BOH tea plantation.

Confession: I hate trekking. It's tiring, sweaty, and dirty. Sometimes it can't be avoided, because in certain places, trekking is really the only thing to do. And the Cameron Highlands is one of the premier trekking destinations in Malaysia.

It was in Myanmar that I first discovered the concept of "hill stations"--where British and European expats built mountain resort towns to escape the heat of their Southeast Asian colonies. The Cameron Highlands was set up in this fashion, as a cool retreat from Malaysia's fierce humidity.

The lower temperatures were a welcome natural alternative to Asia's pervasive air-conditioning. The constant blasts of A/C everywhere sometimes left me sneezing and with a runny nose.

On my first day, I signed up for a tour with Kang Travel and Tours. I figured it would be an easy way to see all the sights in one go.

Our guide, Spencer, welcomed us to the jungle by giving us grass-weaved crowns.

A crowning ceremony

Once anointed, we were ready to tackle the trek. It wasn't that bad, compared to treks I've done in China and Vietnam. The annoying thing was that it had rained the day before, so the whole trail was muddy and wet.

Crossing rivers are always treacherous. While waterfalls and rivers look nice at a distance, they're always a pain in the ass to get across. The wet rocks make it easy to slip and take an unscheduled dunk.

Crossing the river

The longer a trek is, the more I think to myself, "The sights better be worth the walk, or I'll be really pissed off."

Me firing a blow dart at an aboriginal village.

One of the main attractions is the Rafflesia, which is billed as "The World's Biggest Flower." They have very short lifespans, so tour guides are always forced to hunt for fresh ones to show tourists.

A Frenchman almost died in the taking of this photo

This Rafflesia was on the side of a steep hill, which made viewing difficult. I asked a French backpacker to take this picture. He got so involved in framing the perfect shot he almost fell off the hill! I was like, "Dude, it's okay if it's not perfect. Just don't kill yourself in the process."

My favorite part of the tour was viewing the BOH tea plantation. The gleaming green mountains were magnificent, and you could view them comfortably from a hillside tea-shop veranda.

Me with a cup of tea

Tea is always better with good company, and I was lucky to meet Lianne and Andrew on the bus from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands. They were a cool couple from England doing an around-the-world trip after graduating from university. A nice way to cap off an education, by doing a world tour.

Lianne and Andrew from England
Me, Lianne and Andrew

Inside Information

Getting there

Bus: A few bus companies depart from Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya bus station. The trip takes about 4 to 5 hours. Kurnia Bistari is one bus company that serves Tanah Rata, the main town in the Cameron Highlands. They depart every 3 to 4 hours, cost RM23.

The KB buses were adequate, but not as nice as other buses I've ridden on, like Transnational. The final 30 minutes of the ride consist of non-stop hairpin turns up the mountainside.

Since buses go to Tanah Rata so infrequently, it's best to plan ahead. Check the schedule at the bus station the day before you intend to go, to make sure you get a seat.

Where to stay

I stayed at KRS Pines, a nice guesthouse. Very clean, but a little too quiet, like being in a hospital. The management own a more budget-oriented guesthouse, Twin Pines, that's supposed to be more social.

Daniel's Lodge has lots of backpackers, but it's gotten negative reviews online. Father's Guesthouse is supposed to be good, but I've heard they're really strict about rules like quiet hours.

What to do

The Cameron Highlands has hiking trails, strawberry farms, tea plantations, and other sights. You can see them independently, or as part of a tour. I went through Kang Travel and Tours (attached to Daniel's Lodge) and had a good time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Melaka: The Expat's Dream Destination

Melaka, canal-side

Locals walking in the town square

The secret hope of many travelers: to fall in love with an exotic land (or exotic person), and stay there to open up a business. Jim Thomspon is the best example of this, and his traditional Thai house is a landmark in Bangkok. He was a former American secret agent who started a successful silk company in Thailand, built a magnificent antique-style house, collected Southeast Asian art, then mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia.

Melaka was an easy place to like, because it's a "fusion city," a blend of East and West. Along with Hong Kong, Melaka epitomized globalization before it became a buzzword. Even today, the Strait of Malacca (another spelling for Melaka) is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, connecting the manufacturing powerhouses of Asia with its bargain-hungry customers in the West and its oil suppliers in the Middle East.

Houses on the waterfront

The city grew rich in the past by levying a tax on all shipments through its territory. All this trade with foreigners left Melaka with a multicultural character that was so typical of Malaysia. Chinese shophouses, European cathedrals, Muslim mosques and Indian temples were the norm.

Church of St. Francis Xavier

At first, it was hard for me to reconcile how a small city could be so international at the same time. I usually associate multicultural places with major metropolises. You expect a city like Kuala Lumpur to be cosmopolitan. But Melaka was an example what the world could be like in miniature. Go to one street and you're in India. Turn around the corner, you're in China.

Chinese shophouses

I used to think that the price of living in an international city was dealing with all the traffic, pollution, and crowd density of urban life. In contrast, Melaka was a chance to have the best of both worlds: the fun of a melting pot of influences, with the peace of a small town.

Melaka has the most pimped-out bicycle rickshaws in Asia

Richard and Isabelle are a Dutch-French couple that have traveled extensively, in search of that perfect place. I met them through my Canadian friend, Colin. Until recently, the Thai islands were their home.

Richard (The Netherlands) and Isabelle (France)
Richard (The Netherlands) and Isabelle (France), sitting in front of their cafe.

Then they discovered Melaka. Despite seeing other great spots in Thailand and Laos, Melaka was the one that won their hearts. Although buying property and opening a business in Malaysia are difficult tasks, they persevered.

Orang Belanda was the fruit of their efforts, a charming European cafe in Chinatown. Stepping into their coffee shop was like being back in Holland.

While chatting with them over Isabelle's excellent crepes, I fantasized about finding my own sweet spot. The search continues.

Me and Richard with the cafe's mascot, a cow

Inside Information

Getting to Melaka: Comfortable Transnational buses leave from Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya station to Melaka every hour. The ride usually takes about 2 hours.

On arrival at Melaka Sentral, follow the signs to the domestic terminal. Look for buses with "Town Centre" signs. Bus 17 is one. You can take them to the main square with the clock tower and the fountain.

Where to stay

I stayed at Jalan Jalan, a hostel in the heart of Chinatown. It's close to Jonkers Street, which is popular for its weekend night market. One plus is that the dorm doesn't use bunk beds. The downsides are there is only one shower and one (squat) toilet for the whole hostel. Ringo's Foyer Guest House got lots of good reviews from backpackers I met.

What to do

A Hong Kong girl recommended going to Melaka on a weekend, when they have the Jonkers Street night market. Book accommodation in advance, though, because Melaka is a popular weekend destination for people in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The town square is the hub for the main colonial sights.

Getting out

Melaka is a convenient place to get to Singapore and Indonesia. Buses to Singapore take about 4-5 hours. Ferries to Dumai in Sumatra take 2 hours.