Why travel to Southeast Asia? When people asked me this during the six months of preparation, I didn't know how to reply: "Because it's beautiful," "It's cheap," or "The culture is so unique compared to anything American." But mostly I wanted to answer, "Why not?"
Sure it's literally on the opposite side of the world (twelve hours ahead of New York), ergo a real pain in the rump to get to. But once I arrived, my whole body seemed to dilate, like someone looking into the light.
While landing into Kuala Lumpur Airport at 8 p.m., bonsai-shaped clouds filled with internal lightening storms hovered above the rippled and wrinkled landscape. The closer we approached, the closer I could see hundreds of mountain silhouettes. Such beauty, such sublimity, is nearly impossible to describe via words. All I can say is that there seemed to be a small bird trapped in my chest for the duration of my 16-hour flight; when I set eyes on Malaysia, my chest expanded so that it finally took flight.
Being jet lagged and a naturally early riser, I woke up at 6 a.m. Tuesday. I took a shower and chatted with a couple from New Zealand in the lobby of our hostel over coffee and toast. And then I set out into Kuala Lumpur while my friend Christina and her South Korean boyfriend, Song, slept.
It's nerve-racking exploring a new part of the world alone. Yet I've learned that international travel strengthens one's photographic memory, especially when Asian characters replace letters.
When I set foot into the cooking air (at 100 degrees/percent humidity, the air is literally simmering with scents of curry, sweat, sea, flowers, fruit, filth, and storm), I mentally jotted down the rusty, yellow-painted building scribbled with graffiti across the street from the hostel, the two hunchbacked men sharing cigars and dried fish down the street and to the left, the red, dragon-clad temple a few more streets over...
Once I firmly established such landmarks to memory, I followed my curiosities of the city, holding a sort of lamp, eagerly casting light into the dark shadows.
One interesting fact I discovered was that this place is a cauldron of religion: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and several animist-influenced religions (usually applied to any tribal/primal belief that recognizes spirits or a spirit world inherent and controlling within the physical world) are steeped together. Several women wear headscarves or full-on burqas, others strut around in flip flops, miniskirts and thinly-clad tanks. Men are the same. Some are in the traditional Indian Dhoti Kurta, others wear a Muslim Taqiyah cap, and then there are those who simply wear loose linen to stay cool.
When Sleeping Beauty and her prince finally woke up around 11 a.m., the three of us took our backpacks and caught a train north to a town called Butterworth, followed by a ferry to the island of Pangang. It's a coastal city famous for trading and food. That evening we stuffed ourselves with vegetable curry and garlic naan, dragon fruit (bright purple melons dotted with black seeds), nasi lemak (rice steamed with coconut milk, served with fried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hardboiled eggs, and a spicy chili paste known as "sambal"), ikan bakar (grilled/barbecued fish with either chili, kunyit (tumeric), or some other peanut-based paste), and many other traditional Malaysian dishes.
Perhaps the most enlightening (if not disturbing/disgusting) experience thus far was visiting Foot Master Dr. Fish. Apparently fish spas are all the rage in Malaysia, and give a whole new meaning to "feeding the fish." Simply put, two species of fish fill two separate tanks: the larger garra rufa, and the smaller, cyprinion. People place their scuffed feet into either one (depending on one's tickle sensitivity). Then the "kangal fish" (their other nickname) nibble away any dead skin, leaving one's feet soft and clean.
Ew; never again.
It's 6 a.m. on Friday. In a few hours the three of us will take a train further north into Thailand. There we will take another ferry to the southern island of Koh Samui, where we've booked a house on a tropical beach for nine days (for only $170 each!).
So why did I come to Southeast Asia? Because I can't imagine a tastier brew.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to