Destination: Malaysia

From Mandalay to Timbuktu: Great Names, Lousy Places

Mandalay. Photo by Stefan Munder via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

In an excerpt from his new book, “The Tao of Travel,” Paul Theroux recalls a number of places that just didn’t live up to the romance evoked by their names:

Mandalay: an enormous grid of dusty streets occupied by dispirited and oppressed Burmese, and policed by a military tyranny.

Tahiti: a mildewed island of surly colonials, exasperated French soldiers and indignant natives, with overpriced hotels, one of the world’s worst traffic problems and undrinkable water.

Timbuktu: dust, hideous hotels, unreliable transport, freeloaders, pestering people, garbage heaps everywhere, poisonous food.

I was always drawn to Kuala Lumpur because of its name. I loved just saying the words, and I loved the way they sounded. I loved the way they evoked lumpy koala bears, or something even more exotic that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

When I finally went there, I was initially underwhelmed. The Petronas Towers are impressive, but they’re not lumpy koala bears. After exploring the city for a couple of days, however, getting lost in Indian neighborhoods with sari shops and aromatic cafes, and even spending a couple of hours in an elegant old theater watching a Bollywood movie I couldn’t understand, I decided Kuala Lumpur had its lumpy charms.

Ever gone to a place that didn’t live up to its great name? Or that did?

World Travel Watch: Elections in Sri Lanka, Shark Attack in Cape Town and More

Larry Habegger rounds up global travel news

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Happily Adrift in Airworld

On his love for the places so many hate, from Amsterdam's Schiphol to Doha International

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The Worst Hotel in the World

Frank Bures reflects on the hotels we love to hate -- and the book celebrating one of them

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A Room Service of One’s Own

After a terrible-yet-exciting day in the Malaysian town of Johor Bahru last fall, returning to my room at the Hyatt was the highlight of my visit. Malaysia’s second largest city had not treated me well. Worse, I missed dinner. It was late, and I was hungry. So why, even under duress, did I waffle about ordering room service? Don’t worry, I did—and I didn’t hesitate to remove several Tiger beers from the mini-bar while I waited—but I felt guilty about it anyway.

For years, I saw room service as a luxury for people with too much money or not enough inclination to explore the city they were visiting. Why bother to stay in when so many other options were outside the front doors of the hotel? In Johor Bahru, though, I was glad to have it. As my writing career has progressed and I’ve found myself holed up in towns where bringing a laptop outside isn’t such a bright idea, room service has come in handy. It’s never very good, but that’s the price you pay. Literally—food on a silver platter doesn’t come cheap.

So what does room service mean to you? Is it utility food or a time to splurge when getting dressed is too much to ask?

Five Great Pod Hotels

Five Great Pod Hotels Photo courtesy of The Pod Hotel

Travelers can save big bucks at pocket-sized pod hotels. Jennifer Plum Auvil offers her top picks.

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Budget Air Travel Goes Long-Haul

Last week marked the first long-haul flight by a low-cost carrier—99 pounds for a 13-hour flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, anyone?—and the Guardian went along for the inaugural ride. Maxton Walker sets the scene: “As we budget guinea-pigs join the queue at check-in, horror stories swirl about non-reclining seats and the lack of legroom. There’s even a suggestion that if you don’t book a meal in advance, you’ll just have to starve. I haven’t, needless to say, booked a meal in advance.” His full review of the Air Asia experience is heartening, and surprisingly entertaining.

Morning Links: A Hard-to-Find French Town, Photos of Carnival and More

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Sulawesi Sea, Malaysia

malaysia REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Young sea gypsies sit on their boat outside of their family hut in their neighbourhood in Sulawesi Sea in Malaysia's state of Sabah on the Borneo island.

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Logging On

Internet access is available almost everywhere. But is that ruining travelers' experiences overseas? Jim Benning reflects on the rise of internet cafes around the globe.

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Happy 50th Birthday, Malaysia

Tags: Asia, Malaysia

Payphones Around the World

Photos by Jim Benning.

For many years now, I have had a habit during my travels that has puzzled people close to me. It’s not something I have talked about, and for a long time now, I have felt alone in my predilection for this activity. But today, I am coming clean: I like to photograph payphones. Specifically, foreign payphones. During my travels, I have snapped mediocre photos of payphones in the French Alps, on the Caribbean island of Aruba, in Mexico. I have photographed purple payphones backed by graceful pagodas in China, and blue payphones backed by vast jungle in Malaysia. I have taken photos of sandal-shod, saffron-robed Buddhist monks chatting on Thai payphones that looked like mini-temples—ideal places, I always thought, for reflective conversations. Of course, one might reasonably ask: Why do this?

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Meet Laura Moser, Medical Tourist

The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grade Social Climber author Laura Moser has an interesting two-part story in Slate this week about her experience as a medical tourist in Beijing. Her decision to seek treatment abroad isn’t unusual.

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Thirty-Year Journey from Belgium to Malaysia Celebrated with Karaoke, Coffee

Susan Casey met her friend Sang 30 years ago at a Belgian hostel, and she’s stayed in touch with him ever since. Recently she went to visit him in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur, which inspired a report for the public radio program Savvy Traveler on the beauty of a travel friendship maintained. “He gave me a new way to see things,” she says.

Also, two other recent Savvy Traveler pieces caught our attention. Author Tim Palmer sat for an interview about his book Pacific High, which chronicles a nine-month trip he took with his wife along the Pacific Coast Range from Baja California north to Kodiak Island in Alaska.

And World Hum contributor Jeff Biggers had a piece about what can happen when you travel with a banjo, a baby and a laptop computer.

Tags: Asia, Malaysia

Malaysia vs. the Bikini

Backpackers flock to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia for cheap fun in the sun. But some Muslims in the conservative northern state of Terengganu aren’t happy that so many women travelers want to strip down to bikinis on the beach. In fact, state tourism officials are thinking about banning the skimpy swimwear. That doesn’t sit right with tourism officials farther south in Kuala Lumpur, who view the northern state’s thinking as a threat to Malaysia’s tourism business. offers a full report.

Tags: Asia, Malaysia

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