Ahhh Malaysia- the joys, challenges and roti!

Trip Start Nov 01, 2005
Trip End Apr 07, 2006

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Singapore to Melaka

The bus trip was quite exciting. "We're going to another count-ry" I sang, restless for adventure. I was ready to enjoy the trip. There was a fair bit of 'off the bus, queue, stamp, back on the bus'. The ease of Singapore Immigration made us confident. Too confident, it turned out for the shock of Malaysian bureaucracy. I stopped singing. The heat and glare hit us with full force as we left the bus. We dragged our bags into the building which was just as hot. Unsure which queue to stand in, and unable to see any signs in English at that point, we were eventually gestured at by someone harried and unsmiling to get in the middle one. I bravely went first, and my chirpy "Selamat Petang" (Good afternoon) was ignored. I stammered answers to questions mostly not in my own tongue, and somehow made it through, harried and unsmiling.
The rest of the journey was good. I put my new Ipod on shuffle, and received 'Blue Skies' by Ella Fitzgerald. I considered it a very positive omen even though the Malaysian skies were overcast...
I don't know what we expected of Melaka, but our first impressions were not good. Very not good. With increasing alarm we realised it was enormous, not the sleepy little port town we'd read about. Our first views were of a sprawling, unwelcoming, 4-6 lane highway, service stations, and the occasional odd-looking large building in the middle of nowhere. Then, some shanty-towns, and roadside stalls frequented by very serious-looking people, nearly all the women in headscarves. Then, another weird Arabic-style building in pastel shades, freaky billboards with saccarine-smiling people advertising god-knows-what, no signs in English, and finally the bus station next to a huge mall. There was nothing remotely quaint or scenic in sight.
Daniel and I were freaking out. "Now, we don't want to prematurely judge this place, maybe it has some really nice pockets we haven't seen yet, but let's get the f*#k out of here as soon as we can!" We left the nice, cool safety (a recurring theme) of the bus and were hit by dense heat and humidity. We struggled with the packs through the mall, following what seemed like a Taxi sign. This was our first taste of 'real' travel in a culture startlingly foreign to our own. Even the climate and smog seemed to conspire against us, sucking our energy, the grime and dust adhering to our skin and clothes. "Tek-si?" A group of Indian and Malay transport and guest house hawkers surrounded us closely, overwhelming us with their loud, competing voices, faces in our faces. We didn't know how to read the signs, where to go, or whom to trust. How did we end up here having to deal with this? Yet, here we were in a strange land, choosing to follow a man to what we were hoping was his taxi and not theft and certain death. Thankfully it was a taxi, but not your fancy, clean Singaporean breed. It was dirty, lacking seatbelts, and I chose a seat where an errant spring poked into my arse. Wasn't liking Malaysia so far at all. I was calmly thinking we'd have to sleep on the streets as, in the spirit of adventure, we'd not booked a room. We arrived in a street our trusty LP assured us would be packed with guesthouses. Back into our packs, determined to face whatever came our way. Off we set. Not 10 metres down the road, we followed a sign to a friendly proprietor, a clean air-conditioned room, and a shower. Hold on, it wasn't supposed to be this easy!
We ended up loving Melaka and staying an extra 2 days. Our guesthouse had a roof-top garden-sitting area, movies every night in the cafe, and very helpful staff. We would watch the sunset as flocks of cranes flew over our heads. Very romantic! The old, historic part of the town was, dare I say it?, charming. There were trishaws for hire everywhere, decorated indulgently with Malaysian flags and colourful plastic flowers (D called it plumage to attract a mate/customer). At one point, we were exploring a replica of a Sultan's palace, and were resting underneath it. A Muslim couple approached us. At first, we thought they meant could Daniel take a picture of them, which he readily agreed to. Then, it became clear that they wanted a photo of him! He posed with the husband, they thanked him and left. Very strange. We pondered whether D looked like someone famous in their country, or whether he was an addition to their funny-looking-Westerner collection. Either way, D was on a high for the rest of the day, and demanded that I treat him with the reverence reserved for a celebrity.
We spent many hours exploring the fascinating web of narrow back sts in Chinatown. There was not much to speak of in the way of footpaths so we were constantly avoiding traffic, stepping up onto verandahs and down into gutters. There were temples and vibrant paintings of tigers, dragons on archways and undulating seas. We discovered an internet café and rejoiced in the blessed cool, reassuring family that we weren't duped into carrying drugs through Malaysian customs, or cuddling up to birds riddled with Avian flu.
One evening, we bravely ventured into Little India, determined to eat with (and like) the locals. It turned out to be an excruciating exercise in humility. Firstly, the whole menu was in Hindi. We looked at each other with a mixture of trepidation and blankness (a common occurrence). Our pride insured we couldn't slink out, so D randomly picked an item, put up two fingers, and we sat down. This was not your luxurious Indian décor from back home, no draped fabrics, paintings of coy ladies, elephants, and fake flowers in gold vases. It was florescent lit, with plastic tables and chairs, had a tv showing an Indian soapie, and about 20 locals staring openly at us. Just great and God knows what we ordered. The staff began industriously fussing around us. They put banana leaves in front of us and began plonking little scoops of unrecognisable food straight on the leaves. Finally, some naan and a metal pot of liquid something was left on the table. No cutlery. Hmm. Thankfully, it was all vegetarian but how the f*#k do we eat it without looking completely inept?  We could feel all eyes upon us, and self-consciously commenced  scooping up with naan, and watching the soapie which was very compelling and seemed to be about a woman whose husband was in such debt that she had to face the dishonour of doing her own housework. I don't remember if the food was any good, but as we eventually made our grateful escapes, our sense of courage was deflated by having to return for our forgotten backpack...
Cameron Highlands
Daniel's account
At the moment we're in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, it is a beautiful sunny day, and there is not much going on. We're surrounded on all sides by virgin rain forest which is verdant and practically teeming with German backpackers. They congregate at the end of every trail, chests heaving, smiling with grim satisfaction at having completed a 3 hour trail in 40 minutes. Well, I think, that's what they're smiling about. I could just be insecure because yesterday we completed a 1.5 hour trail described as a "pleasant downhill stroll" in about 2.5 hours, sweating like long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs. (Very Dr Phil analogy, Daniel! L.)
Very beautiful (mountains, tea plantations, virgin rain-forest completely unsullied by wildlife, etc.) but I won't go on about that. I would like to share one highlight though - an achievement of the tourism authorities of the Cameron Highlands.
Now, to fully appreciate this, you should know that rain-forest of the highlands is really very special. While the other landmasses of the world have been nipping about from tropical zones to temperate ones, to polar ones and back, the plate that holds Borneo, Malaysia, and bits of Thailand has stayed, climatically speaking, in roughly the same spot. So, this rain-forest has existed continuously for a staggering span and is the only place where a large number of things that were about 160 million years ago can be found now.
Recently, because I wanted to contextualise that number for myself and also, perhaps, because whisky is so irresistibly cheap in SE Asia, I sent a poorly composed email to the Royal Australian mint asking how high a stack of 160 million 20 cent coins would be. The reply (which came on official letterhead from the spookily named Dion Buck) said simply: "Daniel, 403.2 kilometres. Regards, Dion." Amazing.  
So anyway, you can see that this is the kind of rain-forest you'd travel a long way to see. Maybe, once you got there, you'd even like to take a bit of a stroll through it  - and this is where those helpful tourism characters I mentioned come in. They've taken to covering perfectly good walking trails with a garish red and green sealed concrete paths. 
When these horrible paths get even slightly damp, they become dangerously slippery. Did I mention that this is a rain-forest? Just grand. Luckily, they've only managed to do this to a few sections of a few trails. Still, given time and resources I have no doubt these folks can ruin the whole thing.
I should point out that this staggering, bald-faced idiocy was not at all typical of our experience of Malaysia. It is a lovely place. But, I'm prattling and I said I wouldn't.

So, we are only 11 days into our trip and it feels like much much longer (thankfully not in a "Christ, this is dragging" kind of way). We are so immersed in the rhythms of a different way of life now. We have no idea who's left on Australian Idol, how much weight Kirstie Alley's lost now, or how much leg Sandra Sully's showing on the late news. This is a very good thing!! (Umm, actually I wouldn't mind knowing what's happening on Aust Idol).
Anyhoo, onto the Cameron Highlands. On Wednesday, we caught a bus to KL, another bus to a town called Tapah (where D and I were asked to pose for another photo. Me too, this time!) Then from Tapah, everything worked beautifully timing-wise, and we found ourselves on a final, hot, rickety local bus up the mountain to Tanah Rata where we are now. It is stunningly beautiful here, like the Dandenongs on an immense scale. Our guesthouse is on a hill - those steps up were a bastard with backpacks on, let me tell you! - overlooking dense rainforest and the little town itself. There are rolling green hills, tea plantations, waterfalls, and heaps of trails to explore. The supposedly 'easy' trail we tackled on Thursday was arduous and breathtaking (both physically and visually) and took us nearly 3 hours to finish. Yesterday we did a little tour to visit an Orang Asli village which was amazing. The Orang Asli are Malaysia's 'original people' whose descendants have been here for about 40,000 years. We met the children first and bribed them with biscuits to be let into the town, then the kids went with us to see a local waterfall, which was an adventure. We walked for a long time, up and down slippery paths and across shaky bamboo bridges, (one of the little boys, the Chief's first son, wanted to hold Daniel's hand for most of the way) and eventually found a gorgeous little waterfall and swimming hole. The kids immediately jumped in, fully clothed, but a few wanted to show us plants and insects and practice their English. Back to the village, in one piece, we met the Chief (who has 8 kids) and had tea, local corn, and tapioca with him in his bamboo house on stilts. Finally, we were taught how to use a blowpipe. My first shot was pretty spot on! I managed not to dart the many chickens and two well-fed, lazy cats. Our drive back to Tanah Rata was bumpy, scary and beautiful. The mountain roads are mostly unpaved and narrow with lots of blind corners, but the jungle on each side is spectacular.

Cameron Highlands to Palau Pangkor
It will only be my perspective today, sorry. Daniel was reluctant to disappoint his 'fans', but is back in the hotel nursing his, how do I put this delicately?, funny tummy.
Since we last wrote, we spent a couple more days in the Cameron Highlands. Finally, the rain and lack of hot showers drove us down from the mountains. There were four other backpackers bound for Pulau Pangkor on the bus that left Tanah Rata. Little did we know that in time, they would become our nemeses! Intrigued? They were two couples, very serious and cliquey, and spoke in that quiet, clipped accent that could be German/Swiss/Dutch etc. The story goes, we had to change buses in Ipoh, and this involved finding another bus station. The previous night, D had gotten vague directions from the guesthouse guy, and we were relaxed and confident we could find it. Loaded up with backpacks, we conferred with 'them', but only receiving monosyllabic responses we left them huddling nervously together, and off we went into the hot, sticky heat of Ipoh. The guidebooks hadn't been kind to this town, it apparently had a notorious reputation for crime and prostitution. Anyhoo, the four of (let's call them ' them') followed behind us. We saw red-and-white buses like the one we would catch coming from a nearby street and were elated that, yes, it seemed we were on the right track. We quickened our steps, putting more space between us and 'them' and D made me laugh as he triumphantly gloated "Team Number One!" a la Amazing Race. After a while, we realised 'they' weren't following us anymore. Elation morphed into a touch of concern, we had been walking for a while... We looked around for a notorious prostitute to ask directions, but found a nice Indian lady instead, who directed us back to the original bus station. 'They' were nowhere in sight. We trudged on, agreeing that it looked as though we were indeed, Team Number Three. Eventually, we found the right bus station (embarassingly, only 20 metres from our original stop). We bought tickets and rushed onto the bus to Lumut, with barely a minute to spare! 'They' were clustered together at the back of the bus, surprised and none-too-thrilled to see us. One of them said, "Ve tried to varn you..." I shrugged and gave them a big ' aren't we Australians just crazy?!'  smile, and we settled into our seats, closer to the front door of the bus, and thus, Team Number One again! Sure, it may seem a bit sad to fabricate elaborate grudges and competition with other backpackers, but it sure amused us. Team Number One kept their (our) lead by catching the first ferry from Lumut to Pulau Pangkor. We deliberately chose a guesthouse that wasn't gushed about by Lonely Planet, and sure, it had its quirks, but it was quiet, near the jungle, and 'they' wouldn't be staying there...
Pulau Pangkor
Everything is a lot more relaxed on the island of Pangkor. Our competitive streak ebbed from us, lulled by the hypnotic sighing of waves on golden, sandy beaches. So beautiful. For the first time in a very long time, I didn't have something to stress about, plan for, or work to endure, and I didn't know how to deal with it. After a few days I gave in, and embraced the moment, the pace and the beauty all around me; the sun glinting off the greeny-blue ocean, warm breeze, vast blue sky, five beaming kids on a rope swing - squealing with delight -, a father rocking and kissing his baby daughter, young honeymooning Muslim couples immersed only in each other, lots of little stalls lining the streets (it is significant to note here that for the most part, the work in the stores was done by the women and children. The men scored the best jobs of sitting around talking, casually touting boat rides, and lazing in hammocks). Not that we could really point the finger in terms of laziness! There were books read, Malaysian food (I am in love with all variations of roti!) and Tiger beer was consumed, we swam watching stunning, grand sunsets. 

D was in heaven - Pangkor was teeming with wildlife; monkeys, squirrels, hornbills, geckos etc but truly the island belonged to the insects and the cats. The forms of flying, buzzing creatures were many and varied. The locals found our efforts to avoid the huge, scary wasps very amusing indeed. Mossies were very friendly too, but ahh the cats. Those who know me well are familiar with my fondness (nay, obsession) for felines. Well, this was my heaven. These were not the wary, skittish strays of Malacca or Tanah Rata. They were well-fed and relaxed. It was rare to choose a table at a beach restaurant without there being a cat curled up on one of the chairs. Nothing perturbed them, perhaps they were lulled by the waves as well. Sure, all the males had balls intact, and many females had distended preggy bellies and nipples, some had gummy eyes or an open leg wound (shudder!), but all had fascinating and worrying variations of tails. I'd been warned about the cats of SE Asia and their tails, but was amazed to see the reality. Little stumpy ones, broken-looking, jaunty little curls and kinks etc. These cats would lie in co-dependent little piles, heaped on and lovingly licking each other. Very sweet.

Taking time out from our gruelling cat-watching itinerary, we found the time to actually do stuff! We clambered over rocks when the tide was out and found Coral Beach - gorgeous and deserted, like a ghost beach. There were pagodas half tipped over, abandoned tourist facilities in need of repair, and a wide, stretch of white sandy beach. We sat on a piece of driftwood, looking out at the water, and meditated. Very peaceful! We spent the rest of the day trekking through the jungle to the top of the island - hellish for the most part, but rewarding and beautiful.
Several lazy, rainy days passed and we developed a penchant for Malaysian TV. The ads, sitcoms, gameshows and soapies were brilliant. Their Wheel of Fortune was especially fascinating. It seems that slimey hosts and awkward conversation with contestants are universal. D found it very amusing that I kept earnestly trying to solve the puzzles, and calling out "Top Ringgit!" as the wheel spun... Also of note was a local soap opera called 'Inspirion'. It had subtitles and I was sucked in right away. My favourite line was, "...I've been waiting 23 long, painful years for you to call me Mama!" Occasionally, we'd get movies, but our little TV was controlled by the whim of the old man at reception and his remote control. Very frustrating when a good movie would finally start, and he'd switch it to a sitcom. One night on a dare (and after several Tiger beers) D crept into the dark reception in his underwear, and changed the channel - and thus everyone's TVs - to a documentary, and snuck back proud as punch. Much fun indeed.
Another day, we rented a motorbike. We figured that if a family of four could get around on one of them, so could we. It was brilliant and scary. Daniel met me back at the guesthouse after picking it up. He stopped the bike and said, "Goin' my way, lil' lady?" I giggled with delight (and absolute fear) in a very bimboish fashion, put on my helmet, straddled the beast (motorbike), and we were off. It took a lot of guts to surrender to being a passenger, good for control-freak tendencies, then it was great fun. There were a few scary moments when D would take corners a tad too fast, I somehow convinced myself that frenziedly digging my fingers into his hips would save us, and it did...
We felt very rebellious until easily passed by an 80 year old Grandma. We toured around the island enjoying the sights, and passed the 'Satay' fish factory, where truly, truly the most evil of odours dwell. 
There was so much going on, so much beauty around us. We felt so at home in Malaysia, that the thought of moving on to Thailand on Tuesday was a bit scary. That seems to be a recurring theme with this trip; scary stuff, then gradually getting comfortable and 'safe', then launching into scary again and so on. For the first time in a very long time I've had the leisure to deal with a lot of emotional crap I'd been putting off. I really feel that I need to confront the hard stuff to be strong and ready for each new stage that's coming, to shed the old skins.
Eventually, we left PP and headed north to Georgetown (Penang). We spent one night there in a very dodgy hotel where a chorus of Chinese men hucking up phlegm announced the new day. It resembled a concrete cell, the walls didn't meet the ceiling, and we felt like we were being watched - not the best conditions for carefree naked lounging. Penang looked like an interesting town, but Thailand was beckoning, so we crowded into a minivan with two middleaged Western men (both with very young Thai girlfriends) and two lovely gay backpackers, and north we went. They had all cut their trips in Malaysia short in a hurry to get back to the 'Land of Smiles'. Unlike us, they'd found the Malays very rude and went on about the country's shortcomings for so long that D and I were convinced the Malay driver was ready to drive us off a bridge.
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