Category Archives: KL

Adventures in Bureaucracy

Dealing with any kind of bureaucracy is always fun in Kuala Lumpur, not least because of the language barrier. It seems like there are always multiple levels and each of these levels seems to be inefficient and potentially unnecessary from my perspective. For example, unless you would prefer to pay out of pocket for a routine medical visit that is 100% covered by your insurance and then submit a claim form to be reimbursed, you need to get a guarantee letter from your insurance provider before your appointment. Once you have this guarantee letter, and you show up to the medical center for your appointment, you start by going to general registration. Then you get a number and a form to complete authorizing the doctor to look at your medical records. When your number is called, you go to the counter where they ask for your guarantee letter and call up your patient file. If the clerk was previously able to access the letter your insurance emailed to the medical center, you should not assume that on your subsequent visit the clerk will be able to access the same letter. You need to bring a hard copy for the clerk to physically attach to today’s paperwork that you will bring to your doctor yourself. It’s a mystery why a PDF of the letter can’t be kept in your electronic patient file. So every time you see the doctor for a regular, routine visit you have to plan an additional 20 minutes to go through this process. (For readers outside of the U.S., doctor’s offices generally keep your insurance information on file there. You give them your insurance information about once a year, or whenever it changes, rather than at each visit.) This whole process just feels beyond unnecessary to me. And these unnecessary layers seem to be the case for many other bureaucratic channels also.

Recently I was fortunate enough to experience the bureaucracy of the customs office. We have bought things online through Amazon and not had a problem with receiving them at our hotel. Sure, you pay a lot for international shipping, but apparently Amazon also takes into account the customs duties so your parcel just magically arrives at your door with no further effort on your part. I have discovered that clothes in Southeast Asia are not made for Western bodies, and I have a really hard time finding my size. When I can find my general size, the cut is often not quite right for me and so it’s very uncomfortable to wear. Lately I have needed to integrate several new pieces into my wardrobe, and it just wasn’t working for me to shop here. I tried multiple stores at multiple malls, even specialty stores. So I finally ordered a bunch of stuff online. The international shipping was going to be close to $100 USD, which seemed excessive, so I had it shipped to my dad and his wife in Massachusetts instead for $7. They graciously agreed to ship it to me when it arrived, which was good because I placed the order in the middle of the night on the East Coast, so if they didn’t want to ship it to me they would have been the proud new owners of a lot of clothes they probably didn’t want in 5-7 business days. I thought the shipping would be around $50 USD (it was closer to $70 USD), so even though this was going to be a pain I thought it would save money in the long run. Famous last words.

Around the time I was expecting the package to arrive, I received a letter at the hotel saying it was being held by customs. The letter was primarily in Malay with English translation in parentheses after each paragraph. The English text was clearly written by a non-native speaker, so I didn’t feel confident I understood the full content very well. I brought the letter to the concierge guys, asked for their help, and of course they saved the day. (At this point, let me say that I have never really utilized the concierge desk before, not that I’ve stayed at many hotels nice enough to have them. The guys at our concierge desk are incredibly friendly and helpful; navigating life in a new city – never mind a new country – has been immensely easier with their help and advice.) Sharma, the concierge who was there when I asked, explained the letter to us. If Daneal is the head man, Sharma runs a close second in the hierarchy.

The letter basically said that customs was holding our package, probably because we owed some taxes, and we had three options for getting it discharged: 1) for a fee of RM50.00 we can appoint the Malaysian postal service to act as our agent and have it discharged. 2) The addressee can appoint another party to act as his/her agent to discharge it in person. 3) The addressee can go to the customs office at the airport and discharge it himself. Sharma and another concierge both recommended that we go to discharge it ourselves, they didn’t offer a reason why we shouldn’t authorize the postal service to do it for us but they “suggested” rather strongly that we would be better off doing it. We took their advice.

Since the addressee was technically Micah, he had to fill out the form to authorize me to discharge the package. So, armed with every possible piece of identification either of us possesses, the letter identifying the package, and only a vague idea of where I needed to go and what I needed to do while there, I set out late on a Friday morning to deal with this fun bit of bureaucratic nonsense. Sharma explained to the cab driver that I needed to go to the customs office, we showed him my letter and the driver said he knew where it was. (Of course he did, why would he say he didn’t know and refuse a fare?) The driver, I should note, was very nice and very grandfatherly. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but I felt OK because Sharma had told him where I needed to go. Plus I had the address, worst-case scenario I could use the GPS on my phone.

The airport is about 45 minutes from the hotel, and there are two separate terminals (actually 3 terminals, as I found out) in distinctly different locations. As we approached the general airport area, the driver said, “KLIA, right?” I said, “I don’t know, I have to go to the customs office.” “At KLIA, yes?” (KLIA is the main airport.) I have no idea where it is, didn’t you tell Sharma you knew where it was? Then I remembered something from a blog post I had read about how to collect things from customs. It’s past the LCC Terminal, which is basically the cargo terminal. So I told the driver this and he said, “Oh! LCCT is 18 km from KLIA!” Good thing we figured that out early enough. As we approached the Customs building, it was pretty clear that cabs would be few and far between. I was starting to worry about this a little when the driver said in a very sad voice, “I don’t know how you are going to get home.” I explained my plan to use the “My Taxi” app to call a cab- it uses GPS, so I thought that might be my best option- and explained that I was OK with waiting.

We arrived at the office a few minutes later and I checked in at the front gate, where I got a visitor’s badge and they told me the office was closed from 1-2pm…it was currently 12:58pm. When I looked at the office’s operating hours, I neglected to take notice of the fact that the office closes every Friday from 1-2pm for afternoon prayers. This is pretty common in Malaysia, so it should have occurred to me. But it didn’t. The guards said I could wait inside and I didn’t really see any other options. Again in a very sad voice, the driver said, “I don’t know. I don’t think you will find another taxi here.” Then, in a much more confidant voice, “I will wait for you.” That was so nice! But I didn’t want to pay for his meter the whole time. I made clear that I might have to wait a long time and I didn’t think I could afford to pay him to wait. He said he would come back at 2:30 and not charge me for the time. I really think he took pity on me because I was very clearly in over my head with this errand, and as a woman in a Muslim country I think he doubted my ability to take care of myself. Sometimes being a woman works in my favor here! (For the record, I think using the app would have worked. I would have had to wait a while, and it would have been a pain, but it wasn’t like I was somewhere off the grid. Worst case scenario I could have called the concierge guys, tell them where I was, and they could get a cab to come collect me. So I had a plan, just not a great one.)

The office was a long room with many different counters and different waiting areas. I was the only one in the building, as far as I knew, since everyone was at prayers or lunch. So I settled into a comfy chair in a corner and took the time to get the lay of the land. I think sitting for an hour really helped because I had time to read all the signs and see what was where. There were four different counters, so it seemed reasonable that I would need to visit each one in turn. Since I was certainly the only customer in the building, I felt pretty sure I would be served first when business hours resumed and perhaps they would be more patient if I needed help.

The Customs Office, empty during Friday afternoon prayers.

The Customs Office, empty during Friday afternoon prayers.

At 1:50pm, I took a seat directly in front of Counter 1, so there would be no mistake that I was there and waiting when the office reopened. At 2:05pm a clerk turned the lights on behind the desk and seemed surprised to see me sitting there already. I brought her everything I had, in terms of paperwork and identification. She asked me if I was the same person that my husband had authorized to pick up the parcel (yes) and she took everything I brought. She made some copies and I think added a form or two because I walked off with more paperwork. I next went over to Counter 2, where I waited for a few minutes while the clerk got herself situated even though it was now about 2:15pm and the office had been “open” for 15 minutes. She took my pile of paperwork and my passport and found my parcel. She manually logged it into her book, because apparently they keep track of parcels’ comings and goings in an actual written logbook rather than with a computerized bar code system. I signed the book and took my paperwork, passport and parcel to Counter 3.

At Counter 3 I was instructed to open the package for inspection. After I pulled out two or three articles of clothing, the clerk asked what else was in the package (all clothes) and how many pieces there were (about 10). She said, “The listed value on the customs form is over RM200, so that is why the parcel was detained. Do you know the actual cost of the items?” I had my original receipt for about $150 USD, which was definitely over RM200, so I showed that to her and hoped she wouldn’t actually check the package. I knew there were a few surprise pieces of clothing included as a present, but I didn’t know how many and I had no idea of their cost. She wrote down the actual cost of the clothes, converted it to ringgit, and then divided it by the number of items. She took this, along with all of my paperwork…but not the package…back to an office. Apparently some bean counter with a Magic 8 Ball would determine how much I owed in customs duties. About 5 minutes later, it was decided I owed RM60, a little less than $19 USD.

In retrospect, this step might be why it was strongly suggested for me to discharge the package myself. Perhaps if we had authorized the postal service to discharge it, the inspection would have been more thorough. I also had to declare that the clothes were for my personal use, that I wasn’t going to resell them or something. Maybe without the “personal use” declaration the import duties would have been more. Without the receipt, they also could not have known the actual cost I paid (several items were on sale, so the price on the tag wasn’t necessarily what I paid), which could also lead to more import duties. Besides, who knows how long it would take the post office to get itself together to clear it and how long before I got it at the hotel.

Leaving Counter 3, I take my growing pile of paperwork, my now-open parcel, and my passport to Counter 4 to pay my tax. The clerk there looks at the paperwork and tells me again how much I owe. Of course it is cash only, no credit cards. I was prepared for this, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Nowhere in the original letter did it say “cash only.” If I hadn’t read it in someone else’s personal blog, I would never have known and probably wouldn’t have brought enough cash with me.

At this point, I have been through Counters 1-4 in order and I think it’s likely that I’m done. I have my parcel and I’ve paid my fee, what else can there be, right? After getting my receipt, I asked if I was finished. “No. Go back to Counter 3 and then back to Counter 2.” Ugh. Seriously? I take everything back to Counter 3. I have no idea what I’m doing there as she’s already inspected my parcel and rendered a judgment on the amount that I owed and have now paid. So I just handed her my stack of paperwork. She looked through it, stamped several pages, and took one copy of the receipt for her records. Rather than having all of this information scanned into some central database that could be easily accessed by everyone in the building (with less tree death), apparently multiple hard copies of the identical paperwork are the preferred method. Then I went back to Counter 2 and handed that clerk my pile of paperwork. Again, I have no idea what I’m doing there, because as far as I know she is just responsible for handing the appropriate parcel to the right customer- a duty she has performed admirably in my opinion. She did the same thing: stamped several pages and took a copy for her records. She also handed me my visitor’s badge back, apparently I would need this to leave the compound. At this point, I have been counter hopping for a little over 30 minutes. While I think the process was incredibly inefficient, the overall time wasn’t terrible. Someone at the hotel who had gone through this process suggested it might take as long as three hours, so the hour and a half to include afternoon prayer time felt like a real win to me, even if much of the process was a mystery.

Finally released from the bureaucratic maze, I walked outside and, true to his word, my grandfatherly cab driver was waiting out front. He waved to me, as if there were a large queue of cabs for me to choose from when in fact he had the only taxi in the vicinity. I got in and he said, “So! You got your parcel! Back to your hotel now?” I explained I had to check out at the guardhouse and he said, “Ah, of course.” Even he expected more bureaucracy, because 30 minutes clearly isn’t sufficient. At the guardhouse I returned my visitor’s badge and signed out in their book. They asked to see my paperwork and my parcel. Apparently no combination of the 6 different stops I had been through so far was sufficient to make sure that I did in fact have the right parcel and all of my paperwork was in order. The guards briefly looked over everything and said I could leave. Woo hoo!

When we made it back to the hotel, it had been about a four hour round trip. Not my preferred way to spend an afternoon, but it could have been worse. The driver pulled in and I was very nervous to hear my fare total since I had neglected to negotiate whether he would charge the regular flat rate airport fee or use his meter on the return trip. I thanked him profusely for being so nice to me and said how much I appreciated his help. I hoped this would be sufficient kissing up for him to charge the flat rate rather than the meter, plus I was genuinely very thankful. He made a stressful situation much easier for me. He did in fact charge me the flat rate for each leg of the trip and did not charge me for the time he was waiting. Whew! Tipping in Malaysia is not expected, but it’s acceptable in some situations- like if someone has gone above and beyond for you, as in this situation. Standard gratuity is 10%, so I gave him about that (a little more, to make the math nice), for an even RM200 or about $62 USD.

Remember 2500 words ago when I said “Famous last words”? This whole adventure was because I had my new clothes shipped to my dad because $100 USD seemed like too much to pay for shipping. So let’s tally this up. I paid about $7 USD to get the parcel to my dad, he paid about $70 USD to ship it to me ($77 USD so far). I paid about $19 USD in duties, for a total of $96 USD in overall cost to get the parcel into my possession. Considering the international shipping from the original source would have been $100 USD, I managed to save a whopping $4 USD. But then I also had to spend an afternoon dealing with it as well as pay cab fare, so the overall monetary cost was about $158 USD plus my (clearly priceless) time and the stress to collect it.

The moral of the story: Just pay the international shipping when you order online because they will also pay the import duties, and your package will magically show up at your hotel. You won’t have to deal with the ridiculous and inefficient bureaucratic processes. But you will also miss out on meeting a really nice cab driver.

Holiday Weekend Adventures

Micah had a four-day weekend for Chinese New Year. Our original plan was to go to Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor Wat. But we waited too long to buy the tickets, and everything was much more expensive…so we booked that trip for March, instead! Our next plan was to rent a car and drive to Melaka to see what we could see there, but because of the holiday weekend we decided we didn’t want to pay for exorbitant hotel fees. So Plan C was to rent a car for two days and see some places near KL that were outside the reaches of public transportation and/or not convenient for a cab.

This seemed like an awesome plan, but then we realized we didn’t really know anything about renting a car in Malaysia. Is there a more reputable service? Is there one near us, or will we have to go to the airport to pick it up? Will we get taken advantage of, because we don’t know what we should ask for in terms of price and extra services? So Micah asked Daneal, who appears to be the head concierge guy. (He might have an official title, but I don’t know it.) Micah asked for a recommendation on a place to call, assuming that we would then make the arrangements. Instead, Daneal said he would take care of it and call us in 15 minutes to confirm the details. The perks of living at a hotel! Do you remember that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy introduces himself to Red and says, “I hear you’re a man who knows how to get things.” Daneal is certainly a man who knows how to get things! It worked out perfectly. The price was right, we got a GPS included, AND they dropped it off to us at the hotel and picked it up again.

Adventure #1

On Saturday we went to FRIM, which is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, but everyone here just calls it by the acronym. It is about 30 minutes away from our hotel, still within KL but outside the main metropolitan area. The cost is pretty reasonable, too, but we did feel nickel and dimed. The entrance fee was RM5 per person, plus a RM5 car fee, and then they asked if we had a camera. Bringing a camera is another RM5. The Canopy Walkway is an additional ticket at RM10 each. All in all, it cost us RM40 or about $11 USD. FRIM is a working research facility, so there are labs and work buildings around the grounds. For tourists, it has several hiking trails, a café and picnic area, as well as a campground and mountain biking trails. The main tourist draw, though, is the Canopy Walkway. You are encouraged to book tickets in advance, as they only allow 250 people per day on the walkway. Of this, they reserve 50 tickets for walk in customers. The park itself opened at 5:30am, and the walkway opened at 9:30am. I assume they start selling tickets as soon as the park opens. By the time we arrived, around 10:30am, they were just selling out of tickets…glad I emailed for a reservation! Tickets in hand, we happily followed the park signs to the walkway.

I wouldn’t say that we are really experienced hikers, but we enjoy hiking in general and try to take every opportunity to hike somewhere. We weren’t sure what kind of trails to expect, so we prepared for basically anything. We wore wicking shirts and UV-blocking pants…though to be honest, this is just a smart policy in Malaysia in general.  We didn’t know what the terrain was going to be like, so we decided on our hiking boots instead of Tevas/Keens, and we prepped our Camelbaks the night before. I also packed our waterproof bag with snacks and a few “just in case” items like bandaids. Since the trails were basically a tourist area, I was pretty certain we could forego a full first aid kit and survival rations. At first, it seemed like we had over prepped. The trails were really wide, like almost wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and were graveled. Everyone else we saw looked like they were out for a casual walk in the park, many people wore flip-flops and it didn’t seem like many people were carrying packs or even water bottles of any kind. And here we are in our full hiking gear! As we left the main trail to take the trail to the Canopy Walk, however, we were glad we had worn our boots and brought Camelbaks! The trail got very steep, very narrow, and had a lot of switchbacks. It also became a more “natural” trail- it was still clearly marked and very well maintained, but it felt more like “real” jungle trekking over roots and rocks and things as opposed to walking along a gravel walking path.

The walkway itself was amazing. I am not typically afraid of heights and I used to enjoy doing ropes courses and “adventure” stuff, but my legs were more shaky than I thought I’d be! Micah, who doesn’t enjoy heights, was fine. It was a great experience, and we agree that we would do it again if one of his colleagues wanted to go or if we had visitors. The views were phenomenal. The sense of being that high in the trees was really unique and just very cool.


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We knew from the website that we wouldn’t be able to take pictures while we were on the walkway itself. And what kind of blogger would I be without pictures of it? (Pics, or it didn’t happen!) So we talked about buying a Go Pro video camera. We have toyed with it before, and decided we would have enough opportunities to use it, between the canopy walkway, the Cambodia trip, and a few other things we have planned. So we bought one the day before. I really liked using it, it was pretty lightweight to wear on a head strap, but after hiking with it for a while felt like the strap was trying to burrow into my scalp and I took it off. I don’t have a lot of patience for editing videos, either, so that will take a long time to learn the best ways to do it. Other than that, the Go Pro gets my endorsement!

Here is the video from the first leg of the walk. (It’s also available on our YouTube channel.)  According to this, it took about 3 minutes, but it really felt longer. I think the whole thing probably took us about 15 minutes, including time to enjoy the scenery at the platforms, but it felt like we were in the canopy for a really long time! I highly recommend doing this particular walk, or one like it, if you ever have the opportunity.



Adventure #2

After acclimating to driving on Saturday, on Sunday we went far outside the city – to a different state, even – to check out the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah. According to Google Maps, it should have taken us about 1.5 hours to get there. We made it there in 2 hours, thanks to the GPS not being speedy enough about which turns to take. Overall, it was not too bad of a trip. Their website is a government run site, and the information was pretty minimal. Lonely Planet talked about it a little, but it didn’t get a rave review or anything, so we weren’t too sure what we were getting ourselves into. The drive there was really beautiful though, through the mountains and some palm plantations, and we kept saying things like, “Well, even if the elephant thing sucks, this is a nice drive!”

We finally arrived and parked easily, which was nice because FRIM’s parking isn’t well marked and was a free for all. We found the visitor’s center, also clearly marked and easy to find, and filled out our registration form releasing the center of all liability. The entrance is by donation, whatever amount you want to pay. This is really nice because it makes visiting the center affordable for everyone. We elected to pay extra for tickets for the baby elephant “bath time” which also included a guide and some behind the scenes stuff. For two adults, this cost RM50, or about $15 USD.

After we registered, there was still time to feed the elephants before the suggested/required introductory video, so we went down to do that. For RM3 you could buy a bundle of about 10 pieces of sugar cane to feed the elephants. At first we just watched the elephants, but then we couldn’t resist feeding them. These elephants are kept in what appeared to be pretty small paddocks, and both of us were a little surprised. We expected it to be more “free range,” since it was a conservation center and all. But it was fun to feed them, so we did that for a bit, then had lunch and went to watch the video. The video was actually really interesting, and detailed how the center rescues rogue elephants that are endangering villages or plantations. There’s an argument here about “maybe people shouldn’t be encroaching on the elephants’ habitat, and there would be less rogue elephant behavior.” That’s certainly true, but outside the scope of my tourist expertise. And, quite frankly, it’s hard to tell people they can’t make a living or live in the jungle because an elephant might want that part of the jungle. I think the center takes the view of “Unfortunately this is inevitable, so what can we do to help the elephants given that these are the circumstances?” So that’s the view I will take here as well.

After the video, we met up with our tour guide. Kamil was amazing, very knowledgeable and patient with all of our questions. We first learned more about the elephants in the paddocks. They are there in the afternoons for the visitors to see, but in the mornings they get “free roaming” time in the jungle surrounding the center to acclimate them to being independent. They also get some “free play” time with toys for stimulation. The elephants in the paddocks are being rehabilitated to be reintroduced to the wild in various national and state parks; they are at the center while they are getting medical treatment and/or growing up to where they can be released. Some of the elephants will also be trained to be rescue elephants. The rescue elephants go along to help with the rogue elephants. Obviously, being captured and relocated is very stressful for an elephant, so the rescue elephants help the rogue elephant calm down and feel better because elephants are very social animals. They called the rescue elephants the Big Elephants, and they were big!


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After a ranger told us more about what kind of work the Big Elephants do, and after we saw the Big Elephant bath time, it was time for the baby elephant bath time. Our guide got us in the first group to participate, which was cool. There were two baby elephants in the river and about 5 people would help bathe the elephant at a time, along with 3 or 4 guides. We scrubbed his back and head with a brush and played and splashed water around. It was really fun for us, and it seemed like the elephant enjoyed the playtime also. After our turn was over, walking out of the river, Micah and I agreed that those few minutes were amazing and well worth the trip there. (It also completely validated the purchase of the Go Pro as we now have an awesome video!) If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Conservation Centre, pay the extra money for bath time, you won’t be disappointed. And bring a change of clothes and some towels.

After we changed into our newly purchased t-shirts and toweled off with our newly purchased towel, we met up with our guide again because it was time for more behind the scenes stuff. The center has three babies. The two bigger ones, 2-3 years old, were the ones we bathed in the river. The third one was about 6-9 months and was about the size of a motorcycle. This baby, Lanchang, is the one we got to play with. He came trotting out with his “Uncle,” that’s how the handler was introduced to us, and looked so happy to be out for a walk. He was really curious about everything, trying to find things to pick up with his trunk. Lanchang was really interested in walking around, so when it was our turn for playtime, we basically just walked around with him. It was surprisingly fun! The other people on the behind the scenes tour had two little girls, so we reluctantly finished our playtime so the girls could play.



Kamil told us more about some of the other elephants, including one that lost a foot. Selendang was caught in a trap and was so injured that her foot had to be amputated. Not to worry though, they designed a prosthetic leg for her so she can go out in the jungle for her free roaming time still. She shares a paddock with another elephant, and they figured out how to remove her prosthetic and play with it. So while she is in the paddock, the handlers take the prosthetic off because it is too expensive to be used as a toy. Because of her injury, her other leg is bowed out since it does all of the front weight bearing. Kamil said a vet was coming in soon to design a brace to help support that leg. She will likely have a shorter life span than the other elephants and won’t be able to be rehabilitated to go back to the jungle or to become a rescue elephant. If she were in the wild though, she would have already died from her wound most likely.



Part of our "behind the scenes" tour involved doing some chores.

Part of our “behind the scenes” tour involved doing some chores.

The behind the scenes tour also includes doing some “chores.” Some of the families cut up fruit for elephant snack time, some made milk for the baby elephants, and Micah was handed a shovel. Fortunately for me, Kamil just told me where to stand and to get my camera ready. I’ll take the light duty over the poop shoveling any day!


After this, it was sadly time to go. We really enjoyed the day, and I think having access to a private tour made it worthwhile. We learned so much more and came away with a much different impression of the centre and the work they do than we would have otherwise.

The drive back was awful, by the way. What should have been a 1.5-hour drive took 5 hours. Including about 30 minutes at a rest stop, 28 of which I spent in line for the bathroom. I’d characterize the traffic as “stop and go” but it was really much more “stop” than “go.” Micah did an amazing job navigating the traffic and the unfamiliar road rules…apparently it is OK to make an extra lane in the breakdown lane…when this happens, all the cars shift over to accommodate the extra lane, meaning that the far lane is really close to the center divider and the middle lane is basically on the lane divider. Oh, and it also rained the entire way through the mountains. It was really stressful to be a passenger, I am very thankful I didn’t have to drive in those conditions!

To end on a happy note, please enjoy the video of highlights of feeding the elephants, playing with the baby, and bath time.  (Also available on our YouTube channel.)


Lion Dance Competition

Our weekend routine has evolved into low-key Saturdays, with whatever errands need to happen, and “an adventure” on Sundays.  Sometimes that means a trip to a museum or a park, sometimes it means we just go out and see what we can find.  Kuala Lumpur is getting ready for Chinese New Year, beginning 19 February.  We’ve seen different events at the malls, and we decided this past Sunday’s adventure would be to go to Chinatown to see what was going on there.  We didn’t expect a whole lot, since we are still over a week away from the actual beginning of the festival.  But there are so many great places to eat, and so many interesting places to walk around and people watch, you can never go wrong with planning to have lunch there and just winging the rest of the afternoon.

As it turns out, we were in the right place at the right time.  There was a Lion Dance competition outside of Central Market, or Pasar Seni.  Central Market was originally a food market, known in Southeast Asia as a wet market.  Now it has a lot of craft and clothing stores.  It primarily caters to tourists, I think, but they host a lot of cultural events as well.  (Maybe also for tourists, but still worth checking out!)  We caught the last three performances of the day, the competition had been going on for hours by the time we got there.

In my non-expat life, I coach figure skating.  So I am always interested in performance-based competitions.  There were acrobatics involved, synchronicity between the performers and the musician, and the overall style of making the movements look like a lion.  It was also pretty clear to me that there were certain elements that were required.  From the sample size of three that we saw, it looked like there was an obstacle the lion had to overcome and it looked like the lion had to eat something.  The last two groups also included blue plastic to represent water, I didn’t notice if the first group we saw included water or not.  Each group was responsible for setting up their own props to set the scene, so each performance was very different from the others.  This Wikipedia page gives some great history about the lion dance, but I couldn’t find anything describing how the competitions were judged (other than vague descriptions of “more difficult” acrobatics).

The “obstacles” seemed to include things for the lion to jump on and/or walk across.  The performers did some great acrobatic tricks.

According to the history on Wikipedia, the “eating something” element historically included some kind of greenery and had a red envelope with money in it to reward the performers.  The lion would “eat” the greenery and spit it back out, while the performer kept the envelope.  These performers didn’t have the red envelope, but the performances did include greenery and flowers to eat.  The final group used a large vase, apparently this is more difficult…although the lion didn’t really eat it, just moved it a little.

I had never seen a lion dance up close before.  It was really beautiful and a lot of fun.  I knew the performers controlled the lion’s eyes and mouth, but I never expected to be able to see different expressions on the lion’s face.  That was really impressive.

Just like youth competitions in the U.S., the groups stayed to watch the other performers.  Their families were also there to support them, and usually everyone from one group- performers and parents- wore the same t-shirts.  This was pretty similar to what I remember from my days competing.  It seemed like the performers, who were mostly teenagers, were responsible for setting up their own props and drums.  We saw very little adult intervention, except for helping clear the stage area at the end, which was probably more about expediting the process.  Surely there were adult coaches to do the choreography and manage practice, but it wasn’t clear to us, as observers, where they were.  That was really different from skating competitions where you can always find the coaches.  Micah and I both noticed that the judges had shirts that said something like “Malaysia Olympic Federation.”  Lion Dancing is not an Olympic sport that I am aware of, but how cool for the performers that the judges were clearly big wigs in the sporting world!

Here’s a clip of the final group we saw.  I liked them the best, but they didn’t get the highest scores out of the few that we saw.  They also didn’t place in the top 3, but we didn’t see any of those groups unfortunately.  The clip is also available on my YouTube page, here, in case the embedded clip has issues.