Nature to nature via Gotham City
Trip Start Jul 2003
50Trip End May 2005
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Where I stayed
Walking out on to powdery-white sand with our rucksacks, we watched a crab-eating macaque actually eating a crab. Jumping into a long-tail boat round the peninsular, the island of Langkawi eventually became our stepping stone from Thailand to Malaysia. With the whole place appearing to serve as a duty-free shop for Malaysians who booze, we met some very pleasant people and were tempted to stay for a while. Huge shopping malls sold us everything from fruit scented swimming goggles to digital cameras.
Christmas saw us returning to our usual rooms at the Eastern & Oriental in Georgetown, Penang. "With its return to elegance, those who have once visited this famous hotel regard the E&O as a haven to be sought again and again, as the traveller returns to the home of his affection", as remarked by one literary guest
The earthquake (9.0) in Penang on Boxing Day was an experience. Whilst foolishly trying to eat a plate of laksa assam for breakfast (very spicy, very fishy), Will thought he was going to faint as he claimed the floor was moving. When the ceiling fans and chandeliers began swinging violently we knew it wasn't Christmas Day's over indulgence on duty-free malts and fine wines to blame. For about eight minutes it was something like being on a slow moving, vomit inducing, rocking ship.
About five hours later, our 'slight hangovers' having prevented us from going outside, we were rushed to the window by a thunderous, roaring noise. Scrambling on to the balcony we stared in disbelief at an endless line of white water approaching at some speed. The noise and force of the tsunami was incredible, shaking the whole building as wave after wave slammed into a (fortunately) huge seawall below us. Within 15 minutes it was all over, and people just stared at the debris. Despite Penang being less than 400 miles from the epicentre, the land mass of Sumatra and the shallower waters of the Straits of Malacca had reduced the intensity experienced in further away locations such as Sri Lanka. The strangest thing for us was that on exactly this date last year we had just avoided the earthquake in Bam, Iran (Oooops 11). Less than 24 hours before our ferry was due to depart for Medan in Sumatra, we changed our plans and looked for a bus to Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur is fantastic. Its cultural mix means that every Asian festival is entertained and, as in the UK, one street may have five restaurants from different parts of the world. Malaysia's national sport is shopping, and the malls here are mammoth (including one with a rainforest). With an observation deck at 276m (920 feet), the views from the telecom tower over hi-tech tower blocks and abundant greenery are as good as they sound. The flushing sewage drop from the toilets really should feature in the Guinness Book of Records. Around the tower's base is a primary rainforest, right in the heart of the city.
Just as we arrived the Petronas Towers were made the second tallest buildings in the world, but they must be the most impressive. At night, immaculate stainless steel rises up into the clouds to almost half a kilometre (1,500 feet), with every shining line of metal so detailed that it makes you think your eyesight has suddenly improved. The world's tallest flagpole and largest walk-in free flight aviary add to the big stuff to see. Fine colonial/moghul fusion buildings from railway stations to mosques are scattered around the city. In the legendary Coliseum Hotel, so aesthetically tatty it really should feature in some cool film, a poster advised us on what to do 'when your servant has malaria'. New Year celebrations were pretty much cancelled everywhere so we headed back for a few ales at the hotel, hurtling into 2005 on a monorail.
Melaka (Malacca) was a mystical emporium a few centuries ago. From all over the world, ships came in their thousands to trade every conceivable type of merchandise. From the 15th century it began to attract the monopolising attention of the Chinese, Portuguese (via Goa), Dutch (bankrupt) and eventually the British. As remarked by the Portuguese almost 500 years ago, 'Men cannot estimate the worth of Malacca on amount of the greatness and profit', and 'Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice'. These monopolies were unfortunately its downfall: as the super-powers fought over the little town, taxations led to dispute and the ships slowly went elsewhere:
'In droves they came,
When the going was good;
Like rats, quitting a sinking ship, they fled,
When the tide began to ebb.'
The British eventually pulled down the fortifications in order to prevent reoccupation by potential enemies. Trade and administration was moved to Penang and, with rubber plants arriving from Kew Gardens, agriculture took over. There's now little in the town to show its former glory.
The Baba Nyonya are a unique 'strain' of Chinese who arrived here by following a Chinese admiral in the early 15th century. Japanese occupying forces in 1942 'asked' the Baba Nyonya Community for $50m as a gift. When they couldn't afford it, a Japanese bank loaned them $22m to help. When asked whether he was Chinese or Malay, one elderly man answered that he was a British subject. A small Chinatown, now restored to beautifully interiored art galleries and antique shops, contains endless piles of fantastic furniture to hint at just how wealthy some of the former inhabitants once were.
A unique mosque lined with Victorian tiles and with a pagoda-like minaret sits in Harmony Street with a fine Chinese Taoist/Confucian/Buddhist temple and a Hindu temple. A few old Dutch buildings, a ruined church on a hill, a small gateway from the once mighty fort and a small maritime museum in a reconstructed Portuguese ship pretty much complete the aesthetic attractions. What is most interesting, however, is the cultural mix. The bus to the train station passes through the 'Portuguese settlement', and a few of the fellow passengers were definitely of Hispanic descent (from 500 years ago). Many Oriental inhabitants still have decidedly Dutch names, from De Witts to Westerhouts.
Taman Negara rainforest, having missed the ice ages from the north and south, is estimated to be unaltered for 130 million years. We took a train and boat as far as we could into its depths before setting off on foot. The first day saw the paths becoming less and less obvious as we struggled to find routes around huge and ancient, fallen trees, and wading through waist-high rivers. By the end of the day we were bleeding heavily from leech wounds (there were thousands and they got EVERYWHERE), and exhausted from some really steep climbs. Setting up our now well-travelled tent in a remote clearing by a flash-flood prone, swift moving river we settled in. At night the general insect noise level wasn't quite as loud as some of those Ugandan nights, but there were some really weird noises ranging from high pitched wailings to low rumblings.
After a day or two spent mostly cooking, coping with the effects of such tannin-rich water and attempting to dry some clothes over a smoky fire, we set off again. In a few miles the terrain had completely changed from dry, hilly, massive tree filled jungle to deep, dark and muddy forest full of bamboo, and completely ploughed up by pigs. More trickling tributaries in beautifully peaceful places gave us opportunities to de-leech: since the little blighters moved at such a pace towards anything warm and sweaty, the only safe place to pause seemed to be on a rock in a stream. Out came the salt, off fell the leeches and down poured the blood. Finally reaching our destination we were rewarded with a bum-bum (lookout hide) high above the jungle. Failing to spot anything too exciting due to our falling asleep, we were rewarded with early morning jungle birds before setting off again for a known boat pick-up point. Back at the village we joined a group of Malay students on the world's largest aerial walkway. A frighteningly high mix of 50m (165 feet) high swinging walkways and precarious stepladders wasn't enjoyed by all. It seemed to go on for ever through trees which should really only be seen by the parrots; the situation wasn't helped by a local informing us that it was only dangerous "if we fell off". There's some debate about privatisation of businesses in Taman Negara attracting too many visitors, resulting in the displacement of many animal groups. Apparently, despite there being some very rare species including tiger and Sumatran white rhino, little has been done in the way of assessing the populations still present. It's a huge area but village development on the outskirts is continually encroaching on the park. It really is a fantastic place to pack a tent, food and plenty of salt, and go off on your own to explore for as long as you can handle.
A luxury train ride took us to the next city south, and early next morning we were welcomed on to the big, comfy armchair of south east Asia: Singapore. Will we find a ship to the USA?
Santa and his red-nosed leech