Best of the West – Play The Game, See The World: Kuala Lumpur

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Friday, April 9th – The day before leaving I woke up to the following Facebook status: “Brian Kowal is in Kuala Lumpur. As far as I can tell, it’s just a big mall.” I chuckled, after all the tournament site was part of one of Malaysia’s largest megamalls, and during a tournament there is little time or incentive to get out and see anything else. Leave it to Mr. Kowal to make the best tongue-in-cheek quip about any situation.

The day before leaving I woke up to the following Facebook status: “Brian Kowal is in Kuala Lumpur. As far as I can tell, it’s just a big mall.” I chuckled, after all the tournament site was part of one of Malaysia’s largest megamalls, and during a tournament there is little time or incentive to get out and see anything else. Leave it to Mr. Kowal to make the best tongue-in-cheek quip about any situation. What I thought was particularly funny was that this is the way that I first started playing Magic: go somewhere exotic (or, you know, the next state over), battle at a hotel or tournament center, sleep, eat, go home. I had not stopped to appreciate the places I was going much, which I eventually realized was a mistake. When you go away for the weekend, or the week, and you come back to the place you live and people ask you what you did, and you tell them you went somewhere just to play in a tournament, they give you this goggle-eyed look, as if to say, “Well, it’s your life, do what you like with it.” I may have added “see cool stuff” on my to do list to avoid this discomfiting stare, but once I started doing it I realized how much I had been missing: this was the only way to travel! This, then, is a story about good friends; a story about monkeys, elephants, and fish (so many fish); a story about playing the game and seeing the world.

(Warning: If you’ve come just for strategy or decklists, there are none in this article.)

My first few days in Malaysia were pretty typical for any Magic tournament: spend a lot of time getting there (in this case twenty hours reading and watching movies in an airplane); set up shop in a hotel room; meet with friends to discuss the metagame and tune sideboards; play the tournament. The mall that the hotel and tournament site were part of was home to a few amusements.

The first was a correct-to-us scale replica of a scene from Alice in Wonderland in the middle of the first floor. We’re talking sixteen to twenty foot tall mushrooms, elaborate metal gates, and a large table set for a tea party. Taking a further step into the surreal, the mall put on a song and dance show in this macromycological forest which gathered some pretty large crowds. I mean, when you really step back and think about it, how odd is it that there would be a man whose job is to dress as a giant rabbit and entertain in such environs? I’m sure this isn’t what our ancestors had in mind when they sharpened spears and nursed their fires through the primeval night. The world is truly full of wonders and marvels. For dinner we kept seeing signs for an “Italianeese” restaurant, which we were pretty excited about. And by “we” I mean everyone but Sam Black, who was certain that if they couldn’t spell the country’s cuisine right, the cooking couldn’t be much better. However, the rest of us felt that this would probably be the first and last time in our life we would get to eat this exotic cuisine we’d never heard of, and thought it would be a great excuse to settle the bill with a round of the Italian Game. Unfortunately, despite making efforts to find it, we never found the mythical restaurant. Instead we merely ended up eating at the joint with the best pun in it’s advertising, the simply Thailicious cuisine of Flying Chillies. How was it, you ask? Thailicious!

The very best thing in the tournament location was something Martin Juza turned us on to. One night we walk past him in the hotel lobby and he has this big grin on his face. “Hey, have you guys been into the massage place?” We all shook our heads in the negative. “They have this tank full of fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet. It feels really weird, you should try it!” We put it off until after the tournament was over, but come Monday, before we left the site for digs in the city center, I insisted that we had to check it out. We paid our money to the girl at the counter, and after washing our feet off in the bathroom were lead to a tank, maybe three feet across and six feet long, full of small fish. Always up for an adventure, I plunked my feet into the tank, and as one the fish turned towards my extremities and moved in at full speed. Someone cracked a joke about piranhas and wished me luck at walking around on my soon-to-be stumps. When the school got to me, it felt exactly like hundreds of toothless mouths sucking and scraping at my foot. I’m a bit ticklish, and just started laughing and trying to hold still while the others looked on in amusement.

Seeing that I hadn’t been permanently disfigured, Sam Black, Mat Marr, Brian Kowal and Brian Kibler all stuck their feet in, and the fish dispersed to feed at “richer pastures”. Apparently the fish are a kind of toothless carp called garra rufa, or “doctor fish”, that come from Turkey (where the treatment originated) and just as Juza said they are like maggots in that they remove dead flesh while leaving healthy tissue behind. If you were wondering who has the most delicious skin, the answer is a tie between the BKs; the fish really loved Kibler and Kowal, but then again, who doesn’t? Sam Black, on the other hand, had a difficult time with the fish. He started writhing uncontrollably as the fish went to work on his toes, apparently unable to take the tickling. You should see that man flail and writhe, it’s pretty hilarious. Probably half the fun of the tank was watching Sam try to stick it out while his knuckles went white gripping the steel railing around the edge of the tank. Of course, it probably didn’t help that at one point everyone else pulled their legs out so that all the fish would get Mr. Black… what are friends for?

Before I left for Malaysia I had asked Zac Hill what I should see while I was there. Part of his reply: “In general, KL is not a very touristy place, with obvious destination spots. But you DO have to rock the Batu caves, which are actually as impressive as they are built up to be.” The Chatter of the Squirrel writer was spot on with this recommendation. The Tuesday after the tournament we grabbed a couple cabs to take us out to see the place: 272 concrete steps leading up to an enormous cavern (with an over three hundred foot ceiling!) housing a Hindu shrine.

Ever since I read the Hobbit at age 6 and my cousin taught me to play Dungeons & Dragons (that’s right, all the cool stuff), I have spent time daydreaming about where dragons would live, and this cave would have been a Dragon Roost for sure. There was plenty of room for a horde of treasure, an entrance sufficient for a giant flying creature to wing out of, stalactites hanging from the ceiling to set the mood, and even little bats flying around the top of the cavern through Jacob’s ladders of sunlight piercing the ceiling.

The carved figures atop the shrines were beautiful in their intricate details, and one could certainly understand why this was one of the most popular religious sites outside of India. The real treat for all of us, though, were the monkeys.

Dozens of the little gray primates call this place their home, and they work the visitors for all they are worth. As we walked up the steps to the caverns, we noticed a bunch of them hanging out on the railings, looking at us. I saw some other tourists feeding them rice out of a coconut shell, so I grabbed some of my own and held out my hand to feed them.

It was pretty cool to feel their fingers scrabbling against my palm as they tried to grab each morsel of food out of it. We continued upwards when the ever hapless Sam Black ran afoul of a monkey that decided it didn’t like him. It bared it’s fangs, hissed, and lunged forward, which Mr. Black prudently retreated from. Unfortunately, it followed him up the stairs and menaced him some more, causing him to flee again. It was fairly funny for the rest of us, but man, I bet it would hurt if one of those suckers bit you, they’ve got some serious looking teeth. (Despite later valiant efforts of Brian Kowal to get a monkey to attack Sam so that we could get video, we never quite managed to catch it on film.) We felt pretty bad for whoever was the janitorial staff here. The monkeys are essentially the world’s first dumpster divers, and there wasn’t a single garbage can that hadn’t had its lid removed so that they could get in and eat all the food that got tossed in there.

Unlike people, though, they had no compunction about leaving wrappers and detritus all over when they were finished with their meals. I even got to watch a team of about a half dozen monkeys band together to topple the garbage can whose lid and been proving tricky and watched as the feast spilled out over the ground and the monkeys dug into it. Like us, they are very clever animals. I had a good laugh when Brian Kibler was trying to feed one of them a little piece of granola bar, and the guy just ignored what was being offered, pried his other hand open and took the whole bar.

Mat Marr, on the other hand, was a master monkey manipulator, tricking the larger monkeys into following one hand so that he could feed larger portions to the smaller monkeys he liked more. We spent a lot of time just watching them wrestle with each other, mothers take care of their young, and the older ones menace younger ones on their turf. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Zoo (unless we’re talking Extended!), but being immersed in the animals and watching them in their real habitat is something I’ll remember fondly for the rest of my life.

A couple days earlier I’d walked into the coffee shop in the mall with the free wi-fi where everyone was hanging out in the mornings and announced, “Good news! There’s an elephant sanctuary a couple hours out of town where we can feed and ride elephants!” The BKs were both pretty stoked, but I was perplexed by the lukewarm reception from Mat Marr and Sam Black. Mat said he’d done it earlier in Thailand, and wasn’t that interested in doing it again. Sam Black took the cake with, “My sister’s husband is an elephant trainer. I get to play with elephants whenever I want.” What?! I really like my sister’s boyfriend (and likely to be husband), but I suddenly felt cheated that he doesn’t have a job with the circus. After dishing Sam the deserved, “Must be nice,” I made plans with The Dragonmaster to head out on the extra day we had while the rest of the crew caught a bus to Singapore to get their cheaper flights over to Japan. Fast forward back to the day after the Batu Caves, and Mr. Kibler and I are in a van on to the way to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary.

We got out and our guide led us to the visitor information center, which was unusual in that everyone had to remove their shoes before entering. I’ve never been a big fan of shoes, my feet get really overheated most of the time, but it was still quite novel to be asked to kick them off before coming into a building that wasn’t either someone’s home or a temple. After we secured our passes we walked to where the elephants were. Once again, being able to approach and interact with the animals was nothing like being at a Zoo. There was a huge crowd around one of the huge mammals and I bought some peanuts so we could go up and feed it. After shouldering through the crowd a bit we got up close.

I expected her to use her trunk to inhale all of the peanuts I held out, but instead she just opened her mouth and waited for me to toss them in. Elephants have huge mouths, and even I know they are herbivores there is something a bit disconcerting about a mouth so big your arm could fit in it. I mean, what if she suddenly decided that maybe humans would be tasty after all? My next time around she did suck the peanuts up with her snout. I was amazed at how much the elephant could hold with her trunk, and the texture of her skin which felt somewhere between very dry rubber and a rock. Brian took his turn feeding the elephants, and then they called us over for instruction on how one can mount the animals.

The first technique demonstrated involved pulling on the ear to make them bend a little and then using the bend in the knee as a step to then kick yourself up and over on to their back. It looked like it took a lot of dexterity, but the trainers were pros at it. The one I thought was the coolest was the front-mount where the guy just kicked off his shoes, grabbed the trunk, and then shimmied up it like some sort of tree. We didn’t get to see the last technique since it could only be done on small elephants and the one who was available had a hurt paw. After this, the staff had all the visitors queue up for a ride. I waited for my turn after watching (and photographing) Brian, and it was pretty sweet. There was fear of falling off, feeling the massive weight of the elephant shift back and forth underneath me, and the exhilaration of thinking “Oh my god! I’m riding a motherf***ing elephant!” (I hadn’t really had this level of “Holy sh**, how cool is this?!” since I’d fired a flamethrower last summer.) For their last trick they loaded groups of us on the backs of an elephant, they strolled out into the river, and then casually tipped over and dunked as all into the river. I’m not sure if you told me before I left for Malaysia that I’d be paying for the privilege of a large mammal trying to drown me I would have believed you, but I would definitely do it again. It felt like all of a sudden the ground beneath me just disappeared (elephants do feel as stable as the Earth) and all of a sudden I was just dipped in the river.

Kibler and I both stood up out of the river, laughing like little children. Then we joined the actual little children splashing with a few of the smaller elephants a little downstream. Afterwards we got out, showered, and rode back to the city with the glow of satisfaction with our venture to the countryside.

Our Thailicious meal wasn’t the only excellent one we ate while in Malaysia. Brian Kowal and Sam Black are both vegetarians, and share my love of great Indian food. Outside the Batu Caves were three vegetarian Indian restaurants (Sam was in heaven), and after sussing out which one had the best looking menu and ambiance, we walked in. There was a pretty serious communication barrier as we tried to figure out what to order, but eventually Kowal broke through with a brilliant strategy, “Bring us five dishes, bring five you like.” He made the five with his hand, and then the thumbs up, and the restauranteers hopped to it.

He then turned to us and pointed out that with the prices around 1 to 2 RMB, we were only paying 30 cents a dish and shouldn’t worry about ordering the wrong thing. Delicious dish after delicious dish was brought out, and we just told them to keep bringing more of the ones that we liked until we were completely stuffed. (If you’re ever out there, our favorite was the Marsala Tosai.) It’s easy to eat like a king when you get to dine for pennies! I’d never seen anywhere else in the world where food was served on giant leaf fronds, but I thought it contributed considerably to the ambiance. (If you look very carefully at the picture, you’ll see that those are leaves and not table clothes we’re eating off of!)

Later on we were looking for tasty eats in the city and had seen the distinctive McCurry sign on the street near our second hotel. (The one with the elevator that aggressively tried to chop us in half with its doors and kept trapping us inside when we exited too slowly.) Brian Kowal went the morning Brian Kibler and I went to go see the elephants, and let us know that it was also delicious and we should give it a whirl. We went to check it out, and I was tickled to find that they served their tosai as a cone, and had to indulge myself trying it on as a wizard’s cap since it looked so much like one.

I put on my robe and wizard hat

Our last grand dining experience was an open air food market that Terry Soh took us to see, after we gamed at his store for a while. The cool thing about it was that unlike American food courts where you need to order and wait for your food, you just gave them your table number and they would come serve you. I enjoyed sitting back while waiters from six different restaurants brought dishes of all kinds to us. (It was also an easy way to choose a restaurant with a minimum of difficulty.) Terry ordered us some Stingray, which I’d never had before, which was a little rubbery but had a delicious tangy preparation to accompany its fish-like taste.

When all was said and done, I had enjoyed Malaysia more than most other places I have been. The company was top notch, and I had gotten to try to do a lot of things I’d never done before. When I got home to the states almost nobody asked about the tournament; everyone wanted to hear about the elephants. With every question, I would smile, and begin to tell them snippets of this tale.


Poll Question: Did you like this article? I know this isn’t the standard fare for StarCityGames, and wanted to know if people like occasional stories like this or they would prefer decklists and tournament reports more often? I suppose my article next week will either be a similar article about times in Yokohama, or my final thoughts on Extended before I begin to prepare for GP Washington D.C. and Pro Tour San Juan. Please sound off in the forums. Thanks!