Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me – A Summer In Southeast Asia

Hey, folks. Today’s topic on Daily Post involves travel. Specifically, how far you’ve gone from home. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gone on a few flights have come close to the 24 hour mark. If we’re talking sheer distance, my 2002 summer in Malaysia ranks as the highest. According to Google, the length between San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur clocks in at 8,439 miles. That’s just 114 miles further away than my trip to Phuket, Thailand in 2012. Seeing it on a map after all this time is actually kind of mind-blowing.

The journey to Malaysia was long, but it never felt tedious. I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled to Southeast Asia, but I can vouch for their airlines in a totally unofficial endorsement way. Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Dragonair (no, not the Pokemon) have provided some of the best intercontinental flights I’ve ever been on. Comfortable seating with ample leg room. Food that is actually food, as opposed to airline-food-that-slightly-resembles-food-but-isn’t-fooling-anyone. Seat-mounted screens with tons of channels, movies, and video games. And those complimentary hot towels? So good.

Granted, I slept through a good chunk of the flight from SFO to Hong Kong – that part of the trip alone is over 6,900 miles! – but the experience was way better than any other flight I’d been on. The layover in HKG was a good change of pace, though. Here’s the funny thing about HKG. I’ve spent at least 20 hours just in that airport, but it’s all been for layovers. Seriously, I’ve spent more time in a foreign country waiting for a plane than I have actually visiting it. There’s a lot of distractions, though. It was already awesome in my initial visit a decade ago, and it’s gotten even better since. Seriously, read up on it. It’s popular for a reason.

I didn’t get much time to see all of it back then. It was the summer of 2002, and I was just a recent high school graduate. Sure, I’d been to Mexico, Canada, and The Bahamas already, but looking out that gate window was something else. The realization I am in Hong Kong hit me like a truck. I wanted to go out and see it. I wanted to know what was beyond the seemingly endless tarmac. There wasn’t time, though. The connecting flight to Singapore was coming up soon, and getting left behind was definitely something to avoid.

Stepping out of Changi Airport was like stepping off the Apollo Lunar Module. Solid ground, but a completely new place. The first thing that struck me was how clean everything was. The thing most foreigners associate with Singapore is its laws against littering. It’s a very real thing. They don’t mess around with stuff like that out there. Think about that the next time you’re walking down a city street. What also struck me was how warm it was. I’m a Bay Area guy. I grew up with dry, triple digit springs and summers. But this? It was humid. Utterly, ridiculously humid. I was drenched in sweat within minutes. I and the rest of my group piled into our ride and headed for our final destination: Johor Bahru.

If you look at a map, you’ll notice how close Singapore and Malaysia are to each other. They’re separated only by the Strait of Malacca. If you’re from the Bay Area, it’s kind of like driving from San Francisco to Oakland. Only with cleaner roads and way more flora. Oh, and you don’t just pay the bridge toll to cross over; you show your passport, too. You know the tedious process of getting it stamped every time you go through airport customs? Yeah, imagine doing that every time you commute to work. By the time my trip was over, at least half of my pages were crammed with ink.

Speaking of the San Francisco to Oakland comparison, the same goes with the drive to Johor Bahru. Singapore was clean. This was…less so. Now, that doesn’t mean Johor Bahru was some kind of gritty, nasty place. Believe me, there are much worse places to stay. It’s just that Singapore set the bar so high that nothing else would’ve competed. This city felt much more down to Earth and seemed like a cool place to live. The cultural and natural aspects alone were enough to get me hooked. My inner hiker delighted in having a completely new national park to explore. Seriously, Google some pictures of Endau Rompin and try not to be amazed.

I didn’t do a lot of touristy things, surprisingly. After the first week or so, I settled into the daily grind. I was staying in an apartment complex across the street from the waterfront, so I had a great view of the ocean…and an immense selection of seafood. I’ve always loved fish, so this was like a godsend. Shark meat. Fresh tuna. Fried baby octopus. I could go out around sunrise and buy a cheap breakfast from the fishermen at the docks. You ever have freshly-caught crab for breakfast? Now that’s a guilty pleasure. Oddly enough, I did manage to visit one supposedly American-tailored restaurant. It had a crab pizza named – I jest you not – the Fisherman’s Wharf.

How’s that for irony?

Oh, side note: I went to a Malaysian McDonald’s once. I try to visit one whenever I’m in a new country. There was a really cool underground one near the Arc de Triomphe. HKG has stupendously efficient one as well. The one I tried in Johor Bahru surprised me because of how…well, how professional it seemed. I don’t know about your local franchise, but most of the ones in my town seem like absolute last resorts. But this? With its outdoor cafe, stylish decorations, and attentive staff, you could have mistaken them for upper class dining. A shame their McPorridge (seriously) never made it stateside.

Seafood aside, it took a little while longer to adjust to the rest of the daily grind. The way some of the shopping centers were set up by floors, I could get my groceries, peruse a bookstore, catch a movie, and go bowling all in the same building. Convenient, if totally different. The apartment was large enough that I had my own tiny bedroom. Just enough room for a mattress, my bags, and a chair. A single window and a door. Nothing else. It was fine. You don’t need lavish hotels to travel comfortably. All I needed for my day was a good book, a travel journal, and the sound of the rain. It did take a few tries to get used to bathing, though. To anyone that has a shower with hot water, try living a few months with only a bucket, faucet, and cold water as your primary source of hygiene. You’ll start to appreciate what you have a lot more.

The weeks drifted by. I went to a few other places, including Malacca City and Macap. If you think traffic in the states is bad, try going on a road trip in Malaysia. Not so many cars, but way, way more motorcycles. Driving around the country had an almost surreal quality to it; the roads were modern, but they were surrounded by lush rainforests. It was one of the starkest juxtapositions of mankind versus nature that I’d ever seen. The road trips culminated with one final destination: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. It didn’t take that long to get there, but the seeing that location was something else. The Petronas Towers were the tallest man-made structures on Earth until Taipei 101 was finished. Nearly 1,500 feet high, it’s one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century. Read up on its design sometime and be amazed. You could see the towers from miles away. Miles. It still dwarfs every building around it. When I reached the foot of the massive structure, I had to literally bend over backwards to see the upper floors. In that single awe-striking moment, I was standing 8,439 miles from the nearest thing I called home.

The trip back to America was relatively uneventful. It was essentially the reversal of how I entered; the same airlines, airports, everything. The only difference was that this time, I was traveling alone. Imagine that. A young, sheltered California-bred man sent a third of the way around the world on his own. Some people can’t handle that kind of travel. But when I wearily stepped back into San Francisco, I realized for the first time that I wanted nothing more than to do it all over again.

And I have.

Where do you want to go?