15th century Chinese explorer Zheng He
was treated to the king’s feast when he arrived in Malaysia.
However, though the spicy palate of southeast cuisine proved
diplomatically delicious, it did not fit well with Zheng
That night, when all fell asleep to the
night’s warm embrace, Zheng He went out in search of a
restroom. Alas, nature couldn’t wait, thus he emptied his
tender bowels onto the soiled land.
Afterwards, a little embarrassed, he
covered everything up with the rich soil around him and
finally went to bed. The next morning, the king was taking a
stroll in his kingdom when suddenly he spotted a new tree;
hanging from its branches were big spiked fruits that
emitted a certain unpleasant odor.
And that, is the legend of how the durian
came to the world. Even today, when you crack open a durian
fruit, the smell, the color, the shape of its fleshy parts,
and some say, even the taste, resemble a lot like...well,
Zheng He’s famous golden spills.
The durian is considered the king of
fruits in Malaysia. All the locals love it, and foreigners
go there just to taste it. If you can get over the initial
stench (okay, of course I’m being bias here; true, some
people consider the smell heaven, but I’d have to argue
otherwise) the fruit will taste as rich as cream, smooth as
butter, and sweet as pie.
In fact, people love it so much that they
now have durian flavored wafers, durian-filled chocolates,
and durian candy chews.
The first thing the guide told us when we
got on the Malaysia tour bus was the legend of Zheng He and
the durian. The second thing? Please do not eat durians on
the tour bus. The third thing? If you ate a durian before
getting on the tour bus, fart facing an open window.
Welcome to Malaysia, land of diversity,
exotic fruits, and rubber trees. Its official religion is
Islam, and the country is made up of a Malay majority,
Chinese and Indian minorities.
In the fifteenth century, Malacca, the
city where Zheng He spilled his durian ‘seeds,’ was the most
well-known trading post in all of Southeast Asia. The
Portuguese, then the Dutch colonized Malacca, and much
later, the British.
Walking through old town Malacca was like
reliving history. A Dutch church and houses sitting next to
a graying Portuguese fort with cannons next to a marble
statue dedicated to a British queen.
All around, you have the Malays welcoming
you to ride in their bicycle carriages decorated and covered
completely with yellow flowers, their festive version of the
On the streets, you can see colorfully
veiled Malay women with their many children and beautiful
Sari-wrapped Indian girls. There are vendors selling finger
bananas, chilled durians, and sliced mangos; next to the
fruits are carts spilling with Buddha beads, necklaces and
trinkets of the kind. There’s even a girl holding a huge pet
iguana and a thick snake curled lazily around her neck
beckoning you to take pictures.
The historic, almost quaint streets of
Malacca proved to be a huge contrast to the bustle of
downtown Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. There,
immediately, the commercialized, urbanized, neon-streamed
center draws parallels to all the big cities in the world.
And standing under the Petronas Twin
Towers looking up up up? You get this dizzying sensation of
revolving in circles. Staggering, flying, backwards vertigo,
seeing the sky push down on you only to be pierced by the
conical tips of the towers splaying away the clouds.
There you have the world’s tallest
building from 1998-2004. But apart from that, we also
visited the world’s biggest hotel.
Well, not the biggest hotel, but the
hotel with the most number of rooms. Genting Highland
Resorts is five hotels connected into one. It has an outdoor
theme park and indoor casinos. Oh, and it’s built 6000 feet
above sea level.
We had to take a cable car lift to reach
the hotel, which was situated at the top of a mountain. The
20 minute ride, looking down, you can see the lush tropical
flora of Malaysia. As the car climbed upwards, the Genting
Hotel loomed in and out of the clouds, sitting right on the
cliff of the mountain.
What I remember most clearly was the
small hotel room. Two twin-sized beds crammed at each
corner, a bathroom small enough just to stand, and a window
that could only be open three inches, the room itself
But the five-star rating comes not from
its rooms, but from its entertainment. Casinos, theme parks,
restaurants, shows, Genting could easily fit into the Las
Vegas strip. There was a miniature Statue of Liberty,
Venice, Big Ben, and even an indoor gondola ride. As you
look up, the rails of an indoor rollercoaster would loop
dangerously close to the doors of a restaurant next to a
boutique and spa center.
And the casinos, they were bustling with
the happy colorful chimes of slot machines. As you enter the
game room, a straight column of gilded chandeliers dangled
pendulously from the ceiling. At each table, workers were
dressed in satin tuxedo shirts gold and black patterned with
sleek ties. Players were hunched, intently hovering over
their cards silent and smoking, waiting for their fate.
That night, after returning to the hotel
room quite late, head filled with smoke and ears still
ringing from the machines, I opened the mere three inches of
What a shock! I was living in the clouds!
The view was breathtaking, just clouds
and mist and the tips of other mountaintops. No cars, no
city lights, no people, it was like looking out from an
airplane; the mist was even coming through the window...
Dawn came, and seeing the sunrise from
heaven was indescribable. Rays of warmth softened by the
clouds colored the mountains, the sun playing peek-a-boo
below us, the cool mountain air smelling of a new day.
Alas, what a regret to pack our bags and
return back to earth!