Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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After a good night’s sleep I felt sufficiently recovered from the previous day’s long layover in Bangladesh to tackle the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. Armed with a simplistic map that showed streets but no street names, I stepped out the front door of Madhuban Guest House and tuned left, intending to head for Durbar Square to see the UNESCO World Heritage palaces of the ancient kingdom.

The hotel owner said it was easy to find Durbar Square: “Go one block to the roundabout and continue straight; you can’t miss it.” But once there, I found three streets radiating from the roundabout, none of which went straight. I was puzzling over my pseudo-map while keeping one eye peeled for speeding motorbikes on the traffic-clogged road when a young Indian man approached and inquired, in a delightful British accent, if he could be of assistance.

“I’m not looking for a guide; I’m just wandering,” I replied by rote, used to this kind of approach from touts. In the din of blaring horns, chiming rickshaws, revved-up engines, chanting holy men and retailers hawking their goods, I headed off in a random direction, intending to shake my would-be guide.

“Oh, I am not a guide,” he insisted. “My name is Robbie and I just want to practice my English.”

I stopped in mid-stride and pierced him through with a look designed to intimidate. “I know this scam and I don’t want a guide.”

“No scam, ma’am. I really just want to practice my English.”

“You can show me around if you like, but I’m not paying you a cent.”

Side-by-side Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a lovely Buddhist stupa in the Chhetrapati district of Kathmandu

A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) poses for a photo at a temple in the Chhetrapati district

Almost immediately he diverted down a dark, virtually hidden lane, indicating I should follow. A hundred feet later the cramped alley opened upon a spacious square anchored by Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. In the center of the square stood an exquisite Buddhist stupa with a gleaming white dome topped by a gilt spire, painted with Buddha eyes that gazed out in all four directions. Chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, I spun the prayer wheels surrounding Read More

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Penang, Malaysia was good for me. It was comfortable and familiar, as if I’d been there before, and the island welcomed me with open arms. Initial plans called for me to visit Kuala Lumpur and Malacca as well, but there was so much to see and do in Penang, I reverted to the slow travel mode that I prefer and stayed on Penang for two and a half weeks to explore this fascinating island in depth. It was a good decision, not only because I was able to rest and recover from my frustrating and exhausting travel experience in China, but also because I had a rare bout with sickness in Malaysia.

I rarely get sick when traveling; I’m one of those people who can drink the water and eat from street carts all over the world and never have the tiniest adverse reaction. But about midway through my stay in Penang, I woke up one morning with a splitting headache aching muscles that felt like I’d run a marathon the previous day. It was short term; by the following day I was back to normal and I didn’t think any more about it.

During week two I started looking for a flight to Kahtmandu, Nepal and was surprised to find that the cheap seats on both Nepal Airways and Thai Airlines were sold out through mid-October. Luckily, a local travel agent was able to find me a flight on GMG Airlines. The flight left from Kuala Lumpur at 6 a.m., which meant I’d have to take a night bus from Penang to KL, wait around in the KL airport for five hours, and then suffer through a long layover in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I judged the savings to be worth the inconvenience.

Two days before the flight I again suffered a throbbing headache and muscle aches, this time accompanied by nausea, cold sweats, diarrhea, and itchy red bumps all over my body. It finally dawned on me that I’d eaten cockles both times I’d gotten sick. There was no doubt about it, I was having a severe allergic reaction to these tiny little mollusks.

I loaded up on Imodium, trying to stop the diarrhea, and hunkered down under the covers. Despite 90 degree temperatures, my teeth chattered and shivers wracked my body. By the end of day two I was still weak but decided to attempt travel, since my plane ticket was non-refundable and non-changeable. The night bus to Kuala Lumpur and a taxi got me to the airport at 3:30 a.m. but the ticket counter wasn’t yet open, so I hunted down an open McDonalds, sipped on tea, and popped another Imodium, just to be safe.

Long line of luggage carts loaded with linens going home with Nepalese who have been working in Malaysia

By 7 a.m. more than a hundred people were in line but the check in counter had not yet opened – not a good sign for an on-time 8 a.m. takeoff. Too weak to stand for any length of time, I plunked down on the floor among the waiting passengers, all young men who were rolling large metal carts containing stacks of comforters and bedspreads. Curiosity got the better of me; I began chatting with those who could speak English and learned they were all Nepalis, working on contract in Malaysia and headed home to celebrate the high Hindu holiday of Dashain. The bedspreads and comforters, apparently a rare and pricey commodity in Nepal, were being taken home as gifts.

The check-in counter finally opened at 8 a.m. with an announcement that the flight would be delayed until 10 a.m. One of the airline officials who was hovering in the background stepped up to the counter and told Read More

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I met Dr. Fauziah Ahmad in 2007, during my first ever round-the-world trip. We happened to be on the same city tour of Hanoi, Vietnam, and bonded when we had to fight to get a portion of our money back because the tour operator failed to deliver on promises to take us to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We later attended a performance at the Water Puppet Theater, followed by dinner, at the end of which we exchanged contact information and she invited me to visit her in Penang, should I ever make it to Malaysia.

Dr. Fauziah Ahmad and husband, Ahmad Shukri Yahaya

Over the years we’d exchanged a few emails, but hadn’t been in regular contact, so I held off contacting her until I knew for sure my arrival dates. Once I had arrived and recovered from my horrible experience in China, I emailed to let her know I was in Penang. Realizing it was short notice, I told her I’d understand if she didn’t have time to get together, but I underestimated the bonds of friendship made during travel.

The following week, Fauziah arrived at my guest house and whisked me away to her home for the night, where she set me up in her guest room and introduced me to her lovely family. But that was only the beginning; she had plans for me…

Sitting in on student's practice presentation to Dr. Fauziah Ahmad

Fauziah is a geotechnical engineer specializing in soil stability, landslides, and ground improvement, and a full professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysia University of Science). She had timed my visit to coincide with the Hari Raya Adilfitri, one of the high Muslim Read More

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Malaysia’s State of Penang is made up of a turtle-shaped island and a large strip of land on the mainland, joined by one of the longest bridges in the world, however when tourists refer to Penang (or Pulau Pinang in Malay), they almost always mean the island portion of the State. Featuring an exotic melange of old and new: the south side of Penang is home to the country’s second largest airport, an industrial area where electronics manufacturing reigns, and the world’s only Snake Temple; while on the northwestern tip, Penang National Park lures visitors with unspoiled natural beauty of Monkey Beach, waterfalls, jungle paths, and a meromictic lake.

Can’t view the above slide show of George Town, Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

In between, on the east coast, the capital of George Town melds a bustling port with one of the largest collection of intact pre-war buildings in the whole of SE Asia, earning it the designation of UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008. The British laid out the city in a grid system designed to segregate the races and to some degree, these invisible boundaries still exist, with neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown. I found the historic center of George Town to be compact and easily seen on foot; surprising me every few feet with another 200-year old temple, church, mosque, clan house, market, historic government house, or bazaar. Read More

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The driver who picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Penang suggested things I might want to see while visiting this part of Malaysia. “Of course, you want to spend time in George Town to see the many UNESCO World Heritage buildings. Kek Lok Si, Goddess of Mercy, and the Snake Temple are all interesting. And you must go to Batu Ferringhi; they have a good beach and the most incredible night bazaar.” Indeed, most of my time on Penang Island was spent wandering around George Town, but one day I just wanted to lie on the beach, so I caught a bus up to Batu Ferringhi.

From the moment I set foot on the beach I was disappointed. The sand was coarse and grainy and trash was scattered around. Granted, I’ve been spoiled by sugary white sand beaches in Thailand, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and the Caribbean, but even the water here seemed dirty and signs warned of danger from jellyfish. I walked a couple of miles up the beach, hoping it would improve, but instead the further I went the more erosion was evident, forcing me to walk over sandbags in places.

Coarse sand and less-than-clean water made me scratch this beach off my list

Beaches at Batu Ferringhi are not swimmer friendly

I’d cut back over to the main highway and was making my way to the bus stop when rain came pouring down. I ducked under the first available store canopy and found myself standing in front of something called a fish spa. Intrigued, I peeked in the windows, until one of the proprietors stepped outside and reeled me in.

Can’t see the above video of the Fish Spa at Batu Ferringhi, on Penang Island, Malaysia? Click here.

Since he had limited English skills, he handed me a brochure that explained the concept of the spa. Garra rufa, also known as “doctor fish,” occur naturally in the waters of a hot spring in Kangal, Turkey. Locals Read More

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When I learned about the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, I knew I had to visit. Snakes and I have a long-standing relationship, which may have begun back in 1968, when my father brought home the new Bill Cosby album, “To Russell My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” One of the bits was about his parents, who insist there are invisible snakes on the floor so Bill won’t get out of his crib. When they leave, what ensues is an hysterical monologue between Bill and the snakes:

I’m just gonna stick my toe out here, snakes, so don’t you bite me or nothin.’ Just give it a little snaky lick when I stick my toe out. Okay, look. You can bite it, but don’t put none of your juice in it, okay snakes?

For some reason, that bit was indelibly engraved on my memory, and ever since, I have attracted snakes. As a child we had a snake that lived under the foundation of the garage. I can still remember sitting for hours, watching his little hole, willing him to come out. As an adult they have crawled across my feet in botanical gardens, sprawled across trails I hiked, and appeared wherever I lived. My magnetic draw for snakes peaked during the eleven years I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with a rat snake that lived in my attic crawlspace and a a three and a half foot Red-Bellied Water Snake that took up residence under my side deck. I affectionately named the latter Myrtle and I was the only person who could get close to her; whenever anyone else approached she would make a beeline for the protection of the deck. The idea of a temple full of snakes was just too good to pass up.

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

The Snake Temple looked pretty much like any other Chinese Temple, with its obligatory concrete urn outside and red and gold altars inside, although this one was a bit less showy than others I had seen. I wandered around the main hall, watched people light candles and prostrate before the altar, and continued my circuit back to the front of the hall. I was mystified; there were no snakes here. Thinking maybe I was in the wrong place I approached a shaven-headed nun and asked where I could find the snakes. She looked at me like I was mad and insisted, “Snakes everywhere. Look.” My gaze followed her pointing finger to the rear altars, where naked tree branches protruded from china vases and intertwined to form miniature Read More