Friday, 24 January 2014

A Return to Malaysia

My journey had been heading south through Thailand towards Malaysia.  And yet another interesting border crossing was to be encountered.  At least this time it wasn't due to the border authorities on either side.

Getting the bus to Penang meant getting the longtail boat off Tonsai back to Ao Nang.  This bit was accepted.  What wasn't was the rigmarole I had to go through with the buses.  A mini van picked me up from Ao Nang.  I was really hoping this wasn't to take me to Penang as it had seen better days.  It dropped me at a central point near Krabi to reassign passengers to other vans depending on where they were going.  I got back on the same van.  Alone.  I was then dropped off at their office in Krabi where I waited for 40 minutes before another van came to collect me with no one able to explain what was happening.  The next van was already full so I spent most of the 5 hours to Hat Yai, a border town in Thailand, sat on the very uncomfortable middle seat next to the driver.  At Hat Yai I was told to get off the van once more, again with no explanation of what was going on.  Thankfully it was only a short wait before I was bustled onto yet another van.  And finally someone was able to explain, albeit another passenger.  As there are so few people going from any particular place in South Thailand to the same place in Malaysia (other than the capital, Kuala Lumpur), they collect you and then gather you all in the same place before putting you onto a final van which takes everyone from different starting points to the same destination.  All very logical.  Would just help if someone explained this at some point...  Passports stamped & I was back in Malaysia and finally deposited in Georgetown, Penang, an island off the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula.

Georgetown is an old colonial town first settled by the British for the East India Company in 1786 for its strategic position at the north end of the Straits of Malacca, the main trade route to the Orient.  Other than a stint of Japanese occupation during World War II it remained under British control until Malaysian independence in 1957.  And that's your brief history lesson for now.

The city is, to me, beautiful.  Old colonial town houses line the streets of the old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  My hostel was located in one of these buildings.  While only two stories high, they are very long and have an amazing amount of space.  My favourite was a bistro which had taken 2 of these buildings, back to back, creating a cafe on one street and a restaurant on the other, both with different themes and joining the back yards into a large courtyard.  The upper floors of both were then used as an gallery.  And this was a theme.  A lot of art galleries are housed in these buildings, and street art covers their exterior in many areas, particulalry around Lebuh Armenian.  The network of streets and alleys made it a wonderful city to explore, uncovering either new art or temples around every corner.  The temples in the old quarter are much more impressive that the newer ones.

I may have been somewhat spoilt in the temples I have seen so far, but some of the larger ones in Georgetown were a disappointment.  The Kek Lok Si temple is an old Chinese temple, with a pagoda, plenty of Buddha statues, and many buildings.  It is also mostly badly painted, cheaply tiled and has beggars everywhere, interspersed with shops not necessarily selling religious paraphernalia.  Similarly the Thai Buddhist temple has a large reclining Buddha, garishly painted.  Compared to the gold reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok it looks positively tacky.  The Burmese temple on the other side of the road shows how it should be done, with a tall gold Buddha.  You may think that this is not the most important part of a temple, but it is certainly the most impressive and the one which you will remember your visit by.  In comparison the smaller temples do not try to make a point of large statues.  Quality craftmanship and remarkable attention  to detail made seeing these, such as the Khoo Kongsi clan temple, a true pleasure.

Another thing Georgetown has plenty of is museums.  Entrance varies depending on whether the museum is state owned (1 or 2RM - about 20-40p) or private (usually 20RM).  I went to a couple of state museums, being the Penang State Museum for a mighty 1RM, where I spent a good educational hour learning about Georgetowns history & multi-cultural origins, and Fort Cornwallis, the battlements of which have stood for nearly 200 years.  The fort is small and a bit, well, meh, but for 40p I'm not going to cry.  For a private museum I went to the Camera Museum which has a good collection of camera through the ages, old camera obscuras to play with (I enjoyed the juxtaposition of taking a photo with my digital camera through one of these!), and a room size pinhole camera which showed the simple process in some style.

If you're a camera buff (a bit like me) the this is quite a good museum, but the 20RM fee I felt was still a bit high for a small museum, & way too much for someone who is just mildly intrigued.  Or taken against their will.  Feedback from other travellers on cultural museums, such as the Chueng Fatt Tze Mansion had pretty much the vibe - too much for way too little.

Too get away from the city for a while I headed out to the Penang National Park where I hoped to find some decent trekking.  I intended to spent a couple of nights & give myself plenty of time, but the guesthouse I found was less than desirable, populated by a couple of residents who looked as if they had been there way too long and the surrounding town void of entertainment.  A quick search revealed that this was the only place in a decent location for a decent price, so I stayed, hoping the weather would be nice & I would get my treks done in one day - an ambitious idea.  I was shown to the room by the owners son who would not take payment & said his dad would come & see me soon.  He did not.  I woke to the sound of heavy rain, and a heavy heart - would I have to stay an extra, boring day? - but when I eventually got up the rain had stopped & the early heat had dried most of the ground.  Grey clouds still lingered, but this at least stopped it getting as hot as it could have done.  My walks took in both of the trails in the national park, the first going over the hill to the west coast, a pleasant beach and a meromiktik lake, one of only 19 in the world.  They are formed by a layer of salt water that filters through the sand of the beach & settles under the fresh water lake created from water coming off the hills.  But the tide was out & it was a bit unimpressive.  I retraced my steps back up the hill and took a second trail to Monkey Beach.  Despite being the main attraction in the park, this is the harder trail.  While it hugs the coast & the overall rise is not as great, it necessitates a lot of clambering over trees and rocks.  And seems to go on for ever.  And the beach is not that great either.  Maybe it was just the overcast skies, my exhaustion, or the fact I was sharing the beach with a few muslim women, unable to sunbathe in their full burkhas.  It was just a bit rubbish.  I continued past the beach & climbed to the Muka Head lighthouse.  This was a long, steep climb and nearly finished me off, but I finally arrived (where I found a sign saying this was the most difficult of Penangs lighthouses to get to - the rest are all at sea level & in towns!) & climbed the steps to the top of the lighthouse.  To views which may have been spectacular if it wasn't grey.  It was starting to be a bit of a let down.  I retraced my steps down the hill and along the coast, finally seeing the park gates with a smile on my face.  I had covered 14.6km in just over 5 hours.  And realised I had forgotten to eat all day.  That was a bad idea.  It was mid afternoon, so I got my bags & got out of there, finally meeting the owner on the way out to be able to pay him.  I had nearly managed to get a free night,  but am actually glad I didn't.  It's just not right not to pay for your lodging, however poor it may have been (unless service is awful, of course...)

I returned to Georgetown to recover from my exertions (ie, I went to the cinema.  I seem to do that a lot in Malaysia.  Quick tip - take a jumper.  They have the air-con really cold.  I nearly froze watching The Hobbit) and finally eat for the first time in nearly 24 hours.  It was good and well earned.

My next port of call was Tahan Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This area is in central Malaysia and as the name suggests is much higher than the rest, so it is much cooler.  As a result it is a good climate for growing fruit, vegetables and tea.  And lots of trekking through the jungle.

I had met Joseph on the rather scary bus ride (the driver was throwing it around the mountain bends and overtaking anywhere it wasn't safe) and found we were going to the same hostel.  After checking in we had a chat with the hostel owners about treks in the area and were told that a Rafflesia had bloomed and a tour was going the next day. Whilst not exactly rare, these plants only bloom for up to 10 days, and it had only just come out that day.  So we booked to get a chance of this marvel.  First up though was food.  Again I had not eaten for ages (not my fault! - the stall owner at lunch refused to sell me any noodles for no apparent reason) so we found the Sunday market & tucked into street food that was amazing good and stupidly cheap.  Roti Mutarbak is now a favourite.

We started the next day early.  It was a bit cold but the trek to the bloom soon sorted that out.  It was a tough walk at times, especially the final section up a steep muddy climb, and our guide showed us as much wildlife as he could - including a-bit-too-large-for-comfort-and-quite-definitely-poisonous spider.  I have refrained from calling the Rafflesia a flower because it isn't.  It's a parasitic fungus which grows on vines.  It blooms once and then dies.  And they bloom high in the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia.  Guides search for the buds all year round and tell the tour companies when one is about to bloom.  So due to the unpredictable nature of seeing Malaysias national 'flower' this was a bit of an unexpected treat!  And we were not disappointed (although apparently the ones on Sumatra & Borneo are much bigger - ours was only about 70cm across).

The other attractions in the area are tours around the strawberry fields and tea plantations.  We found a tour that combined a tea plantation with the 'mossy forest'.  I was not going to a strawberry field - the endless polytunnels and greenhouses that cover the hillsides make the Cameron Highlands look like a huge allotment (I suppose it kind of is...) and I could go and see a garden centre at home.  We were joined on this trip by Renske.  It started with a visit to the tea plantation itself for a photo session.  The clouds were low again but the plantations were impressive.  Pickers could be seen on distant slopes.  The next stop was the viewing tower on the highlands highest peak, Gunung Brinchang, where our guide promised us views of... well, the clouds.  The cloud was still low.  Lower than us.  Visibility was about 20m.  We saw a couple of trees.

The mossy forest was much more interesting.  It is what it says it is, a forest covered in moss, mostly sphagnum moss which retains more water than it's own weight and is therefore vitally important for the planets ecosystem.  The forests of Malaysia also contain a huge amount of medicinal plants (and even more poisonous ones) and so conservation and research of this area, which is starting to heat up (which is bad) is essential.  It is also beautiful.

Our path wound it's way through the forest, side paths with drooping mosses looked as if fairies would appear at any moment (they wouldn't - they don't exist - sorry for spoiling your dreams, but that's my job), pitcher plants everywhere and the occasional orchid.  We finished up with a quick tour of the the processing plant and a much more leisurely pot of tea and a cake.  It was alright...  Unlike the trip to the Rafflesia, where a guide is needed to know where the bloom is, this trip could have been done without a tour.  But we wouldn't have been privy to all the information nor the guides great sense of humour.  Sometimes it can be best to do the tourist thing.

Joseph & I got some trekking through the hill done on the way back to the hostel, first with some very steep up & down climbs and then a much more enjoyable walk meandering through the forest.  Not that many years ago there were many more trails but the rapid encroachment of development and agriculture has resulted in the loss of a lot of forest.  It's a double edged sword - the beauty brings in the visitors, but destroys it to make way for more.

We were unsure where to go next - Taman Negara for more jungle trekking, or Kuala Lumpur for the Hindu Thaipusam festival.  I was in urgent need of a laundry session, so a return to KL won.  No luxury this time - I was in a dorm.  A very dark dorm with a floor covered in bags.  It was a bit dangerous getting down off the top bunk.  Our hostel was also next door to the largest Hindu temple in KL, so we were surprised with a bit of a street procession as the devotees transported the statue of Murugan to the Batu Caves for the main festivities.  Thaipusam is a festival celebrating the god Murugan, occurs, like Easter, at a different time every year, and we had stumbled into the middle of it.  The focus point in KL is the Batu Caves, 11km north of the city.  The procession for devotees starts in the middle of KL and is bout 15km long, although spiritual preparations last for 48 days.  During this time they show their devotion by carrying jars of milk on their heads, weights (usually fruit - limes, apples, pomelos) attached to their bodies by hooks through their flesh - the heavier the better (I saw someone with 2 kg of apples hanging off them) or even with ropes attached, dragging people behind them.  Some even carry large headdresses weighing 100kg, needing a framework to keep them upright, for the full distance.

Culminating in a climb of the 272 steps to the caves themselves.  We took the train & started about 100m from the steps...  It still took over 2&1/2 hours to get to the shrine of Murugan.  It was an amazing experience to be in the middle of this.  Many people had worked themselves into a trance, small children would be overwhelmed with the heat and noise of the occasion.  The sight that showed the devotion the most to me was spears pierced through the tongue, ensuring a vow of silence and supposedly giving the power of endurance.

Renske headed to Melaka the next day, Joseph continued his exploration of KL, & I went on the now traditional cooking class.  This was a really god one, but a tad expensive.  The usual market tour was very good, lots of time given to tasting spices and fruits, and eating the breakfast of Roti Canai (also now a favourite).  Many people say the best thing about the market tour is seeing how to buy meat and fish.  Really?  You need to get out of the supermarket and down to your local butcher - that aspect of shopping does not change no matter where the country.  The cooking itself was done in a nice building in the hills with great teachers, always helping, making sure you don't mess up, and always ready for a chat about anything food related or not.  It was very hands on (apart from long or complex procedures) and the food very good - beef rendang, prawn fritters (first time I had ever deep fried - and no one died!), cucumber salad and Kueh Koci - a steamed, glutinous coconut dessert.

KL had not much more to offer, so I said farewell to Joseph & followed Renske to Melaka.  My first hostel was full of old people.  So I moved for need of atmosphere into a place in the middle of Chinatown (everywhere has one.  And a Little India.).  I found Melaka to be a lot like Georgetown, a lot smaller and a lot more touristy, the streets full of trishaws (basically a bicycle with a little carriage) which were garishly decorated, blared music out at all hours, and some even had wifi for that authentic experience.  No, I did not partake.

It is again a colonial city, this time rising from sultanate rule from 1405-1511 when the Portuguese arrived, the Dutch took over in 1641 and then the British went all Empire on it. A walk around Chinatown and along the river had the main sights done in a day, mostly temples.  On the other side of the river was the site of the original Portuguese fort, of which little remains, and Dutch buildings of the Stadthuys, bell tower and church, long with a mock up of a sultanate palace.  The rest was the now familiar townhouse.  An interesting site was Bukit China, a cemetery for a single Chinese clan, still in use and recently saved from redevelopment.  The tombs were like small barrows, a gravestone at the entrance and a kind of altar in front for family to come and pay respects.  It had a solemn feeling of awe, quite different to a Christian graveyard.

At the weekends Jonkers Walk comes alive with a street market and entertainment, but is generally selling overpriced tat and cakes and crowded with Chinese tourists moving as slow as ever and having their pictures taken in front of anything and everything (a postcard stand!? That's what you want to remember of your visit!?).  In fact, finding food was a problem - most restaurants, even the local food courts, seemed to have random opening hours, and you were never sure what they were selling.  The other options were usually expensive places for tourists.  Until I found a cheap local Indian place doing great rotis.  Then I was happy.

Melaka only needs a couple of days.  Spare time was spent in the cinema (it is so much cheaper than at home, but the Malays have not quite got the idea of being quiet) so when there were no more films to watch I headed back to KL to arrange the next step of my journey and enjoy a brief reunion with Martin & Stefan from Pai.  It has become standard to check the crowds in hostels for a friendly face, but the regularity and randomness of meetings with the folk of Pai is astounding.  Tine has also met up with many on her travels through Laos and Cambodia.  The phenomenon has become known as 'Pai on Tour'.  Long may it continue.

I am now sat in the hostel lobby in KL, less than 7 hours until my flight out (my first trip on a plane since I arrived in Cambodia just over 4 months ago).  Monsoon season means that the islands on the west coast of Malaysia are closed for a couple more weeks, so I feel that my time in the country is now done.  I have no need to return, at least not on this trip.  In my 3 visits here I have made many friends and had some fantastic experiences.  But I feel that I have been able to absorb myself more in the local atmosphere. I have had more time to travel here than other countries (Malaysia gives you a standard 90 day entry which means you never feel rushed) and so have had a lot more downtime in cities and a chance to talk to people about how they live and the hardships that they sometimes have to endure.  One woman I met lives in a cheap hotel, owes the owner several months rent, but still manages to raise her child without help from her family ho have disowned her because her grandparents favoured her more than them, after they had crushed her dreams of becoming a surgeon as they did not want to spend the money on her education.  A Nepalese guy working in a hostel was forced to leave his country for reasons I will not go into (very complicated - not his fault), was stuck in a 3 year contract that gave him no time of at all (to the point where he arranged activities for the guests as something for him to do away from his job), while not having spoken to his parents for 14 years as he did not want to live the life they had planned out for him.  He tried to call them for 10 years, but they refused to speak to him.  His sister is his only contact with home.  People like this can be found all over South East Asia.  I consider myself very lucky to be in a position where I can live the life I lead, not needed parental blessings or having to live their dreams.  I hope everyone with a pack on their back is just as grateful.

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