Like a Bowl of Laksa

Da Nang, Vietnam

Once you get beyond Kuala Lumpur, peninsular Malaysia offers tourists three things: mountain highlands, beaches, and historical trade cities. I opted for the latter. There are beaches and mountains elsewhere in the region — I’d just spent a good bit of time on both — but what’s unique to Malaysia is the melange of cultures created by its strategic geographical location and its history. Like a bowl of laksa, Malaysia is a mix of cultural influences that can sometimes be a bit sour or strange, but is worth tasting.

Melaka and Penang

In my brief visit to Malaysia, I visited just two destinations beyond Kuala Lumpur: Melaka City, the capital of Melaka State, and George Town, on the island of Penang. Each is a historic trading city that has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each is a mixture of European, Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences, with the Baba Nyonya — the local term for the Malaysian Chinese — leaving the strongest mark in each place.

Melaka (Malacca) (photos) is the smaller of the two, an old Dutch trading port whose importance has long since faded. The old city has been restored and decked out in murals, but there are traces of earlier, less heritage-driven attempts to drum up tourism: a defunct monorail, an abandoned pirate-themed amusement park, an unfortunate thing of overdecorated trishaws — cycle rickshaws — done up in LED lights and Hello Kitty or Doraemon and blasting music. George Town, on the island of Penang, is larger and more vibrant, and there’s still a major working port on the mainland nearby, in Butterworth. But Georgetown, too, shows signs of misguided early development: the highest building, just beyond the heritage area, is a soaring tower, now in a state of disrepair, whose lower floors house one of the most depressing malls I have ever been to.

I enjoyed my time in both cities. In Melaka, it was thrilling just to gaze out at the sea and realize I was looking across one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The old city is beautiful and evocative, and it came alive with the Friday night market on Jonker Street. And I met fascinating people, like the Chinese Eurasian proprietor of a restored Dutch heritage house, who told me about Catholics he knows with Jewish surnames like Menasseh, and also seemed to believe that though you can’t come into Malaysia on an Israeli passport, there are secretly Israeli advisors at the highest levels of government.

In Penang (photos), I stayed in an elegant bed and breakfast, You Le Yuen, in a restored building on Love Lane, supposedly so called because that’s where the rich Chinese merchants kept their mistresses (I stayed in the North Studio Suite). My arrival happened to be the night of the Chingay Parade, which centered on teams that carried great banners on enormous bamboo poles, which they would toss or kick into the air so that one member of the team could catch the pole on his forehead and run with it for a while.

Penang is known for its food, and everyone says to go to the hawker stalls, so I did. The food was good, and varied, and often delicious, but I’m not sure it’s travel-across-the-world delicious.

Penang is also where I had my most extensive interactions with someone who was Malay, as opposed to Indian or Chinese, which is mostly who I ended up talking to in Malaysia. It was at the mosque, where a young man beside a banner about Muslims respecting Jesus roped me into a theological discussion involving several faiths I don’t believe in. He was gracious if passionate — at one point, he tried to inspire me by beginning a recitation of the Koran — and invited me into the mosque at prayer time. I watched him wash, but when he invited me to pray with him, I declined.

Fruitful misunderstandings

On Christmas, I went on my own to watch a movie (the new Star Wars!) and eat some Chinese food, as is the way of my people. Then, in the evening, my Indian friend took me to his brother’s Christian “open house” gathering, under some party tents in a vacant lot between a highway overpass and an elevated rail line. We ate Indian food that was too spicy even for the Indians, and then dessert was some sort of porridgey thing with noodles and beans, served in a cup. My hosts asked me what I thought of it.

“At first it was weird,” I said. “Then it was OK in the middle, and now that it’s gone, I kind of want more.”

The same could be said for my visit to Malaysia. After the warmth and ease of Thailand, Malaysia was prickly, strange, difficult. But it was difficult in a way that I found compelling on some level. I think Malaysia will stick in my mind. It’s an awkward country, cobbled together out of disparate cultures and in grave danger of exploding, yet it’s wealthier than most of its neighbors. It’s an oil state, and also a palm oil state — so much oil palm is planted that Malaysia has to import coconuts from Thailand — but it has the potential to be much more. Unlike Thailand or Vietnam, it has no real ancient roots; it was created as British and Dutch tin mines and rubber plantations, and its peoples and cultures are immigrants. It’s complex and messy enough that I could imagine staying interested in it, the way I stayed interested in Korea — which I also didn’t love after my first experience there. I wouldn’t put Malaysia at the top of your tourist list, but I wouldn’t put Korea there either, and I plan to live there.

My host told me the story of a Chinese Malaysian woman who got set up with an Australian man for a dinner date. As they were ordering, the woman asked, “Do you like me?” It was a forward question, but the man answered, “Yes, I suppose I do.” Eventually they married.

Except that she was asking, “Do you like mee?” — noodles. Malaysia feels like a country built out of such misunderstandings, a country where the locals have trouble talking to each other but muddle through anyway.

Bonus: What Malaysia gets right that the world gets wrong

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you check in, drop off your bags, and then go to the departure gates — and not through security. Instead, your security screening happens at the gate, when the flight is just about ready for boarding. You then wait in a sort of holding pen, for just a few minutes, between security screening and actual boarding.

This system means you’re not on a security line with everyone else coming to the airport, regardless of when their flights are and when yours is. It means that there’s far less time between your security check and your boarding — and far fewer opportunities to, say, slip into the back of a restaurant and get a knife. Your security line is just a part of your boarding process, not a separate waiting period.

Other airports should do it this way. It might require extra security staff, and it definitely requires the construction of secure holding areas by each gate. Not every airport has the capacity. But new airports should adopt the KLIA model.

Buying blind

Airlines are getting worse, and Slate would have us believe that it’s our fault. And there is truth to the argument that consumers who will happily pay an extra $2 for what they believe to be a superior cup of coffee, or an extra $15 for what they think is a better haircut, might pause before spending $50 extra on a flight.

But I think it’s more than that. The real trouble is that I can’t buy quality. Not reliably, anyway.

Uninformed consumers

When it comes to things where people spend a lot of extra money — a cab instead of the subway, say, or a fancy meal instead of a cheap one — it’s usually easy to understand what the difference is that you’re paying for.

Not so with airlines.It’s not that consumers don’t realize there are differences among airlines. It’s that we don’t know with any clarity what those differences are.

Most consumers fly only occasionally — rarely more than, say, six times a year, which isn’t nearly often enough to have a sense of what the marketplace is like. Nor can you go to an airport and try out the entertainment systems and seats on different airlines, the way you can test-drive cars or sit on furniture in a showroom. And even if I’ve flown a certain airline before and liked the amenities, there’s no guarantee I’ll find them on my next flight.

When I get on to book a flight, I see prices, times, flight durations. That’s all I have to choose from.

Where consumers spend more

There are areas where consumers spend more, and it’s where we know what we’re getting. I haven’t been able to find the data (let me know if you can), but I assume that people often choose direct flights that cost more than flights with layovers — I know I’ve made that choice, and if no one else did, the direct flights wouldn’t be there.

Another way that consumers pay more for comfort is by choosing more expensive but less unpleasant flight times; again, I don’t have the data, but I assume there are reasons of supply and demand behind the higher prices for flights that don’t leave at 6 am or land at 2 am.

Changing what we pay for

If airlines really want to escape the spiral of ever-decreasing prices and ever-crappier service, they’ll need to offer services that are predictable, reliable, demonstrable and worthwhile. For example, if Virgin wanted to be the legroom airline, they would have to guarantee that every seat has the legroom you expect, then charge a premium for it.

Would people pay for the airline that offers meals and legroom and other nice things? Maybe. Building trust will be difficult.

But for now, blaming the consumers is unfair.

The pleasures of transit

I’ve been meditating for the past month, using Headspace (I get it discounted as a Google employee benefit). It’s a series of guided mindfulness meditations hosted by Andy Puddicombe, who sounds like the GEICO Gecko. Each day, the GEICO Gecko tells me to take some deep breaths, leads me through a body scan, reminds me to let thoughts come and go. There are times when I want to do it and times when I very much don’t. But has it been having any effect?

There are few better tests of mindfulness and patience than transit. Yesterday I flew from JFK in New York to Phoenix, on an oversold flight the Saturday before Christmas. I thought of Radiohead:

Motorways and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings

As they announced a last-minute gate change, sending the mass of passengers scurrying across the terminal, I felt the pull of that kind of numb irritation. But I made a choice to approach the experience differently. At that second gate, as an entire planeload of people mobbed the counter, I went to look out the window at the ground crew attaching the terminal ramp to the plane, balancing on a high platform to open the plane door and roll in the food carts, putting down and taking up chocks. I noticed the hashes on the ground for where different models of planes should pull in: 747, 777, Airbus 380, 767, 757. Inside the terminal, a sparrow was darting from window to window. A mother brought her toddler to the window and tried to point out the bird to him, but he was mesmerized by the big metal birds outside.

Getting on the plane, I stood beside the woman who was furious about being in Zone 3 and kept telling the counter staff, with tight-lipped determination, that “overhead space is my biggest concern right now,” as if no one else had luggage and the airline had never had to deal with a situation like hers before. Two different families on the ramp were dealing with crowds of children whose seats were somehow not adjacent to their parents’. On board, the young man next to me was coughing up a lung, and his father in the aisle had an argument with the flight attendant over his already-tagged bag that was supposed to be checked. The cabin was so cold that I kept on my hat and gloves. The pilot announced that our JFK ground time was estimated at 50 minutes.

There was every reason to be sour and annoyed, but somehow I wasn’t. I looked out the window. You could see Manhattan in the distance, the new World Trade Center tower, and the planes taking off in front of us were silhouetted against it. It was beautiful. In the air, I ate my overpriced terminal sandwich, put a travel mix on my headphones and took a nap. I woke up, meditated with Headspace. I tried watching Frozen, but it was terrible, so I turned it off. I looked out the window. By then we were over western Nebraska. There was a stripe of snow, maybe 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long, across an otherwise undifferentiated flatness of squares and circles, as if a line of clouds had gotten exactly that far and said, “I think I’m gonna go right here.” I thought about how strange it is that I know Seoul and Beijing and Kathmandu better than I’m likely ever to know that farmland, that the chances of finding me in Omaha are far less than the chances of finding me in Phnom Penh or Vientiane. Then the farmland gave way to the layer cake buttes and canyons and the snowy mountains of New Mexico, and after a while that landscape changed into badlands where the icy rivers splayed out like white fractals, and then the land stepped down into the Arizona desert. It was beautiful. I took out my laptop and wrote about it, and I noticed that when I’ve meditated and been sober — the one other time I kept it up was when I lived in Korea — I’ve written more and more freely. I almost didn’t want the flight to end. Almost.


There are two related thoughts that transit evokes: that nowhere is anywhere, and that everywhere is everywhere else.

The first thought is the numbness that comes over us, the feeling that we’re in non-space, non-time. It’s easy to feel like a dead thing when you’re in the TSA line. (As Talking Heads put it, “I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane / I’m tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.”)

The second thought is the unnerving feeling that planes and technology are shrinking the world, that there is no escape, that wherever you go will be the same as wherever you left. This illusion is brought on by the weird sameness of airports, airplanes, transit lounges, duty free shops, chain hotels. But these places need to be legible and at least minimally palatable to travelers from everywhere, and they need to be interoperable with planes coming in from wherever. Airports aren’t the world. The world is still out there in all its everyday strangeness. Omaha retains its mystery, if you’re open to that.

But contra Talking Heads, nowhere is nowhere, and everywhere is somewhere — even airplane cabins and duty free shops. We’re always in transit: through time, through space. We’re always between things. Something is always ending, something has always not yet begun. But we are always somewhere. And I’m finding, for myself, that the simple practice of noticing where I am makes being there less frustrating, more interesting, more worthwhile. It’s counterintuitive, but when I stop resisting the irritations, stop forcing them away, they lose much of their power. Even at the airport.