One of the realizations you get early into backpacking is that travel and vacation are two very different experiences.
Travel is adventurous, challenging, rewarding. The experiences I'd call "travel" often helped expose parts of my character or taught me a limit I didn't know about myself prior (like my limits for dealing 'gracefully' with unexpected flight delays.) Travel is fun but tough. Vacation is vacation. After our experience traveling the Indian heartland, we were ready for a vacation.
I came off the Jaipur to Singapore flight worried that immigration would turn me back when they saw my visible fever and learned I had no idea where I was sleeping that night. I had two goals getting off my flight: get into the country and inhale as much ciprofloxacin as I could. I must have been an laughably miserable sight de-boarding the plane in the morning (it was a 1am to 9am flight.) Fortunately, the quiet city-state is run with unwavering efficiency.
For being a global city of 5.4 million inhabitants, Singapore is exceptionally sleepy. Though its residents doubtlessly work away to keep the tiger economy running, the city itself is quiet, orderly, and reserved.
Our friend Sophie was kind enough to take us in at her corporate apartment close to downtown when we arrived. Walking around the neighborhood, Dan and I came across a large sign notifying residents of a crime alert - a recent theft of one bike - and urging neighbors to call in any leads to the police. A family friend of Dan's recalled leaving a laptop in a cafe by accident, returning the next day, and finding it in the exact same spot.
Singapore is notoriously strict in its corporal punishment - from executions for drugs to lashings for spitting out one's gum on the street. It's not clear whether the deterrent is enough to keep crime at a minimum, or whether all of those residents who would commit crimes have already been 'removed' from the city, but whatever the reason, Singapore is extremely safe.
In Singapore, I got the chance to grab dinner with Kelvin Teo, one of the co-founders of Funding Societies, a marketplace lender much like Funding Circle. Their model and business were remarkably similar to where I had spent my last 4 1/2 years working in San Francisco - even their office, which Kelvin showed me, had a familiar tech-startup open floorplan.
Some interesting differences between the southeast Asian and American tech scene are that, for many services, automation doesn't create a cost-effective advantage. Labor costs can be so low that manually completing tasks like reviewing credit files, delivering food, or driving cars can be just as cheaply done by-hand. Funding Societies has the advantage of straddling three geographies - Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia - with different costs of living, allowing them to hire engineers in Indonesia at rates that would never be attractive in Singapore.
The last aspect of Singapore that struck me - in a way faintly reminiscent of Bangkok but completely anathema to India - was its blatant consumerism. Christmas is on display in all the shopping malls and tourist centers in a way that makes America look conservative. There doesn't seem to be any religious aspect left to celebrating the holiday, no big churches or nativity scenes. Rather, the commercial aspect of Christmas is alive and well in this tropical city that boasts as many Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as Christians. High-end retailers boast gigantic platinum Christmas trees, carols are played on-loop in every shop, and passerby take photos with Chinese Santas.
From our refuge in Singapore, Dan and I decided to hop a bus to Georgetown, a small town on the island of Penang in Malaysia. The night bus, which traveled up the west coast through Kuala Lumpur, was meant to be a good night's rest. In the end, it was anything but.
Though the ride started calmly enough, upon our arrival at Kuala Lumpur, we learned that Dan's entire backpack had been stolen off the bus. When you're on the road, your bag is your life. From clothes to medications to contacts, you pack most of your day to day essentials into your big backpack and only keep the emergency necessities, such as laptop, phone, wallet, and passport, on your person.
Though we couldn't point to a culprit, in talking with another couple whose bag had also been stolen off the bus, we triangulated the time of theft to an off-route stop that the driver had made, during which a family of 10 or so had crowded onto the bus, and then jumped off again 15 minutes later. In spite of spending the night with the Kuala Lumpur police, the bag was never to be seen again.
Penang was unfortunately for the most part a non-stop for us. Dismayed by the bag theft, we checked into a "party hostel" for two days to blow off steam. (I'll spend another entry giving a better etymology of different types of hostels, but party hostels are almost always worth passing on if you want to see a new place.) True to form, at our hostel in Penang, the occupants were mostly more preoccupied with drinking than sightseeing, with the exception of Dan, who spent the two days filing repeatedly denied insurance claims with Travelers' and Chase. One of our gregarious hosts at the hostel offered us scooter tours of the island, only to sleep through the start time the next day in order to beat a hangover. One recommendation I can make for anyone visiting Penang is to visit one of the local open-air food markets and stuff your face with as much seafood as you can.
Two days was enough for us, and so Dan and I beat a hasty retreat to Langkawi, a secluded island a few hours' ferry ride from Penang that we learned of through hostel friends. We were done with 'travel,' and ready for a phase-shift to 'vacation.'
Working off the recommendations of our friends in Penang, we found a small farm hostel on Cenang beach in the south of Langkawi called Gekko. The hostel, which was a compound of bungalows outfitted with cots and no A/C, was perfect. Each morning, guests wake up with the roosters, which run freely about the common areas. Going for runs through the neighborhood, we'd come face to face with dogs, cats, and water buffalo. (Stray dogs, so far, have been the only consistently ubiquitous feature of anywhere we travel.)
Malaysians are incredibly hospitable. Langkawi was an interesting juxtaposition of a semi-conservative Islamic culture (women would wear headscarves, many restaurants offered Halal food) and the beach establishments that catered to westerners (those that served alcohol were relatively few.) Still, there was never any feeling of unease for not conforming to the cultural standards of the island.
It was a welcome and fortunate turn of events that we'd meet an amazing group of people staying at the Gekko. We quickly grew into a tight-knit group of friends, hailing from the US, UK, Spain, Australia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Finland, with whom we'd spend the week in Langkawi. This group would eventually become The Chicken Gang.
Running vacation itineraries are boring. As much as I'd love to share a point-by-point recap of activities and travel spots on the island, that doesn't make for very compelling reading. In lieu of describing our time in Langkawi, I'll let the pictures tell the story.
The one event that really catalyzed our friend group and brought the Chicken Gang together was the injury of one of its members. After a day of scootering around the island, in which we got ourselves repeatedly lost, found secluded beaches, got stuck in the rain, and ate unbelievably good donuts, a Finnish girl in our group had an accident towards the end of our journey.
Fortunately, it was a slow accident. Nobody was seriously injured. Still, it was a reminder of the nature of travel - accidents are unpredictable, and without being careful they can be permanent. The girl who fell off her bike had to go to the hospital - a tough situation for us to navigate, as we tried to give her first aid and wash out her cuts at the same time as calling emergency services. She ended up with stitches in her knee and chin, and 8 shattered teeth from her fall. Episodes like this provide cautionary anecdotes for the future - always carry a robust health insurance policy and never take safety for granted...
Towards the end of our time in Langkawi, the clock started ticking on Dan's and my visas for Vietnam. American visas in Vietnam carry stricter requirements - and higher prices - than other tourist visas. Given the history between the two countries, that is to be expected. We had to specify entry dates for one month in Vietnam without knowing our plans when we received our visas. So, in spite of our great time in Langkawi, it drew to a slow end as we made ready to journey onward to Ho Chi Minh City and make our way north along the spine of Vietnam.
Nik / 12.23.16
(A note on photos: For this website, I only use photos taken from our actual trips and experiences. Professional photos capture the destinations we visit in a much more beautiful and expressive way. My goal is not to create the most vivid picture of each place we visit, but one that is the most honest to our experience. Better photography of any of these destinations can easily be found with a cursory Google search. When my own photos don't do an entry justice, I'll borrow from my friends, who are much better photographers than I. In particular, I'd like to thank Eva, Sophie, Lara, and Julia for these great photos of Langkawi.)