Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—As we were eating dinner on the front porch of a restaurant in George Town, Malaysia, we were startled by a sudden "whap!" A gecko had fallen from the ceiling onto our table, narrowly missing my beer. The creature, too mortified even to mumble "Pardon me," gathered itself and exited between the salt and pepper shakers, leaving me to contemplate how things fall into one's life.
That's why we were in Malaysia in the first place. A few weeks earlier a colleague had pointed out a Malaysia Airlines ad promoting its "AccessAsia Pass": 24 cities in Asia for $747. That included round-trip air fare between LAX and Kuala Lumpur and all the flights you could fit into 30 days. True, each of the cities (other than the carrier's Kuala Lumpur hub) could be visited only once, but I found no deal killers lurking in the fine print.
It was then that my wife, Janice, and I encountered our first challenge: the kid-in-the-candy-store syndrome. We considered Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Manila, but Asia is not a compact neighborhood. Many of the 24 cities were thousands of miles apart. It was like saying, "As long as we're in Las Vegas, we could swing by Montreal."
So we focused on places closer to Kuala Lumpur, where we would start, then fly to George Town on the Malaysian island of Penang, a recommendation from our son. Next would be Bangkok, for its magnificent temples, with a side trip to some other, less urban Thai destination. By then we would be more than halfway through our month of travel, so I proposed a stop in Phuket, a Thai resort island where we could recharge.
Finally we would go to Taipei, neither close to the hub nor a romantic travel destination, but not requiring the return to Kuala Lumpur because the plane to LAX has to stop in Taipei.
I called the airline's toll-free number, prepared to spend an hour on the phone working through various permutations of our desired itinerary. As with frequent-flier deals, some flights have only a certain number of seats allocated for the AccessAsia promotion. To my surprise, only one leg of the trip -- Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur -- was unavailable on the desired date, and within a few minutes I was able to get my itinerary merely by shifting everything by one day. Our schedule did not quite fit the seasonal "window" (Jan. 15 to May 31 and Aug. 15 to Nov. 15 last year). But $985 for nine flights wasn't bad.
More things dropped into our lives. First, the "Today" show went to Angkor Wat in Cambodia as part of its "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" feature. Janice fell in love with the pictures, but I had to tell her that, although Phnom Penh -- only 200 miles from Angkor Wat -- was one of Air Malaysia's cities, our itinerary was locked in. A change, if one were possible, would cost us.
But then something else landed in our laps. Because of a lost fax, our reservations had never been finalized. So we started fresh. Four days in Phuket became four days in Cambodia.
Our trip involved elaborate preparations, including immunizations, a visa (for Cambodia) and other necessary details of travel, but the one thing we didn't do was make hotel reservations. We didn't want to be tied to a particular city if we discovered that a nearby location might be more fun. We had no trouble finding well-located, modestly priced hotels. They were clean, comfortable and had private, Western-style baths, which suited us -- baby boomers who want some creature comfort -- just fine.
We made an exception to the no-reservation policy for our first night, one of our better moves. After 20-some hours in flight, we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, or KL, as it's nicknamed. My memories of it are mostly a blur because I had jet lag worthy of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Although our body rhythms were still off, we quickly got into the street food routine, finding wok-fried noodles for breakfast and roti pisang (banana crepes) and star fruit juice for lunch -- or was that dinner?
Our next flight was six days away, but we decided not to spend them all in KL. After visiting the National Museum, seeing the landmark Petronas office towers (at 1,483 feet, ranked among the tallest buildings in the world) and taking each other's photo with the mounted guards in front of the royal palace, we headed for Malacca, a southwest Malaysian town made famous by the 15th century spice trade.
Malacca was not on the AccessAsia city lineup, but it was only a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from KL on a modern highway. Our cozy bus was clean and comfortable and cost only $2. And like so much on our trip, it was overly air-conditioned. I often wished I had packed a sweater. After even a brief walk outdoors, I'd be sweaty, then I'd get on a bus or enter a cafe so cold I could see my breath. As a result I had the sniffles constantly.
A cultural, culinary fusion
Malacca was an important shipping port for European spice traders but is also interesting for the culture of Baba and Nyonya, the Malaysia-born descendants of Chinese settlers. Some members of these groups prospered during Malacca's reign as a trading power and built fascinating mansions, now museums, which we visited in Malacca's Chinatown. Their cuisine fuses Chinese technique and Malaysian ingredients, particularly coconut milk and chilies.
Malacca is a cultural fusion as well. Chinese, Indians, Indonesians and Europeans influenced the development of the city, their touches visible in its layout, architecture and houses of worship. Symbolically, in one part of the city, within a block of one another are a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple and, of course, a mosque in largely Muslim Malaysia.
To the delight of the 8-year-old boy in me, Malacca has monitor lizards. These more docile cousins of Komodo dragons lounge along the riverbank and occasionally scurry through the drains. Unlike geckos, the beasts do not drop onto one's dinner table from the ceiling, which is a good thing because they can reach 7 feet long and 130 pounds.
We returned to KL for an overnight before our flight to Penang. We had seen the old Heritage Station Hotel while sightseeing; it is part of the ornate KL train station. (Said one tour guide: "Our train station looks like a mosque, and our mosque looks like a train station.")