Chapter 26: Best Supp. Actor in a Malay Miniseries

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I walked around Kuala Lumpur sampling the shopping and sights. The Petronas Towers were the obvious first stop, as they're famously the tallest buildings in the world. Oddly they don't look that high - probably because they stand alone, so there's nothing nearby for direct comparison. Nevertheless they are marvels of modern architecture, and their design is stunning. Both towers are based on the 8-pointed star shape, and they're connected by a walkway 146 meters up. At the base of the towers is a cavernous shopping complex and an attractive water park and garden area.

I didn't bother riding up to the observation deck (it's only on the connecting walkway, and you can't go to the very top of the towers); instead I walked to the Menara Kuala Lumpur (KL Tower) and took in the view from 267M. The 15MR entry fee included a superb audio presentation via an mp3 player that you take around with you to 12 numbered viewpoints. The narrator explains what you're looking at, discusses the importance of various buildings, and gives some historical information on KL.

The Lake Gardens are a beautiful area on the western border of downtown KL. The park includes many of KL's most popular attractions: the National Museum, a bird park (the largest walk-in aviary in the world), the National Mosque, the Islamic Art Museum, a planetarium, and a butterfly park. I skimmed through a few of those on Friday while walking through the gardens with a local communications student named Rilz who I bumped into. He was thrilled to meet an American (there aren't many here), and he was especially psyched that I had a background in radio.

Saturday I took a shuttle bus from KL's Chinatown to Taman Negara National Park, in central Malaysia. More specifically, I took the bus to the town of Jerantut, then took another shuttle to the Tembeling Jetty, and then took a 3-hour trip up the River Tembeling in a long but tiny (2-person-wide) boat. On the way up I got to know Simon from England, Kyung from Korea (we watched "Finding Nemo" together on the boat), Tim and Shelly from the US, and Yum, another American (3 in one day?!). The boat dropped 15 of us off at Kampung Kuala Tahan, which is a shabby little town across the river from the park entrance. I found an acceptable single room, paid for two nights, and spent the evening eating and chatting with new friends on one of several floating restaurants on the river.

Sunday we all went exploring on the trails of Taman Negara. The rainforest there is some of the oldest in the world, and rare animals like tigers, Sumatran Rhinos, and Asian Elephants roam the more remote areas (along with reticulated pythons, king cobras, and many other kinds of snakes which I was hoping to see). The park is surprisingly organized, with well-marked trails and decent maps. The official park resort is beautiful, if expensive; I kept thinking how much my mom and dad would probably enjoy staying there for bird-watching trips. My first stop was the canopy walk, which is a series of rope bridges strung up in the higher reaches of the rainforest. I'm sure the bridges are perfectly safe, but I certainly felt like Indiana Jones as the wooden planks bounced and swayed, and I crept along clinging desperately to the ropes.

After that adrenaline rush I started down the trail to Bukit Indah, a hill with good views that's 5km into the jungle. I found a tiny tree snake before long; it was as thin as a twig, and very well-camouflaged. Kyung and a few other people from the boat ran into me soon after that, so we ventured into the woods together. Somewhere along the way we looked down at our feet and realized our shoes were covered in tiny inch-long leeches; that was a freak-out moment. Only two of them had attached to my foot, and the other ten were easy enough to flick off. Still: *shudder*

By mid-afternoon I was drenched in sweat, hungry, and paranoid about leeches (tho' thankfully no more showed), so I took a boat back across the river, showered, and relaxed. Monday morning I decided to take the boat back to civilization. I loved Taman Negara - it was fantastic - but I figured I'd have more chances to jungle-trek, and everyone I'd met on Saturday was leaving Monday, too. Once I got back to Jerantut, the only logical option was to take the shuttle back to KL, as there are no direct connections in the afternoon from Jerantut to anywhere else I wanted to go. Simon was continuing from KL to Melaka (on the southwest coast) that evening, so even though it involved backtracking a little, I decided to go there too and see a new city.

I'm glad I made that decision - Melaka is the coolest! It's one of Malaysia's most historically important port cities, and it's a relaxed and friendly place to hang out for a few days. The architecture is fascinating: a combination of Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, Chinese, and English styles from several centuries. Some original churches and buildings from the 1500s and 1600s are still standing, such as the bright red Dutch Stadthuys downtown, which now houses a history museum. Melaka is also known for its food, and the local Chinese/Malay dishes (like laksa - a seafood noodle soup) are especially good.

Yesterday I had one of the more unique experiences thus far on my trip. While walking out of the Eastern Heritage Hotel (thumbs up!) in the morning, I was asked if I'd like to work as an actor for the day. A Malaysian/Chinese TV network was filming one of the later episodes in a 20-part mini-series about the life of Tun Tan Cheng Lock (look him up) in Melaka, and they needed some young white guys to play British soldiers. At first I automatically declined (yikes - cameras!), but then I thought "what the hell, when will I ever be able to do THIS again?" so I said "OK."

I was led to the set in a stately old building across the street, and the hair and make-up people immediately transformed me into a 1950's British soldier complete with awful plastered-down hair and geeky military shorts. A few minutes later I met the two other guys who had gone through the same rigorous casting process as myself: Simon (a different UK Simon), who played an officer, and Roele (Brussels), who was another soldier. Simon's friends Nicky and Elisabeth were our official photographers. We all spent the next 9 hours hanging out together on the breezy veranda playing cards, chowing on the catering, chatting with the crew, and occasionally acting.

The production was hilarious. In some ways (lighting, costumes, cameras, number of takes, paperwork) it was incredibly professional, but in others (script, acting, and, um, casting) it was decidedly amateurish. I had three scenes with the major characters (mostly played by legit actors), and several takes for each. Thirty seconds before each scene I was told where to move and what to say, so figuring out my character's motivation was difficult to say the least. Nonetheless, I'm proud of my emotional delivery of lines like "Please! You can't come in here - they're in a meeting!" and "I'm terribly sorry. It's totally my fault. Forgive me."

The production wrapped for the day at 8:30pm, and we three guest actors earned 100RM (~US$25) each, which handily paid for most of my stay in Melaka. The series will be on TV this May or June, so be sure to look for my Malaysian television debut if you're in the area. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to come back to the country for a while, as the risk of being mobbed by hysterical fans is just too great. I'll have to wait and import the VCD release before I get to see our historical epic.

Last night our team went out for some celebratory beers and Indian food, and I spent today strolling through central Melaka. Lunch was great - three little old Nonya (Chinese Malaysian) ladies sat and talked with me at a restaurant in Chinatown. For dessert they persuaded me to try cendol, which is a combination of shaved ice, coconut milk, palm-sugar syrup, and green bean flour dough. It looks as strange as it sounds, and the texture takes some getting used to, but it's delicious and refreshing!

Malaysia has defied all my expectations... I'd been thinking I'd spend a minimum of time (7 days?) here en route from Singapore to Thailand, as most people I'd met who had been here said the country was just "OK." Instead I might be pushing 3 weeks by the time I get to Thailand, and I'm really myself. Friendly people, fine food, beautiful nature, comfortable transport, cheap pop culture... what's not to like?! Tomorrow I'm moving north again to the Cameron Highlands for a breather from the heat, and I'll write again soon!

- Tim (Future "Best English-speaking Supporting Actor in a Chinese/Malaysian Television Miniseries" nominee)
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