Category Archives: Malaysia

Hiking in the Cameron Highlands III

One of my favourite hikes was the one from Robinson Falls to the Chinese temple in Brinchang. It starts with a long uphill track with some scrambling on all fours over fallen trees and climbing through slippery roots to the top of the Gunung  Berembun. The next bit is a steep descent to  the valley floor followed by a winding path that leads to another trail. This last part has some serious going up and down and becomes a bit of a muddy mess after rain but eventually it leads to the Chinese Sam Poh temple. On a good day this took me about 4 hours, including walking back along the golf course. Sometimes I had an early dinner in Brinchang where there is a Chinese eatery that does a phenomenal kway teow with black pepper beef.

A mysterious animal that proved to be a constant companion on these jungle walks was the one that did whoop. I have never seen it and I suspect it is a small grey bird of some sort. It does regular short whoops but whenever you look in its direction, it stops and you see nothing. Then suddenly, but invariably, it whoops just behind you.

whoops2

Whoops, possibly

 

Once I came across a group of noisy white thighed langurs and I spent some time enjoying their entertainment. It’s a rare treat. The only other mammal I had seen in the jungle so far was at Gunung Jasar. It was a bright day and I was resting from a long uphill walk when I saw a woolly tail from a bush not far away. Then a small black face, two beady eyes, and then it was gone. An unknown vertebrate. The only animals you are guaranteed to see in the jungle are brightly coloured butterflies. Well, apart from the ubiquitous flies, mosquitoes and ants, of course.

I read somewhere that the numerous trails through these jungles were first established by the military who patrolled here against the communists in the sixties. It was in these highlands that the American silk merchant Jim Thompson disappeared in 1967. He was an ex-CIA man and some say he wanted to meet the communists. Maybe he met them and they didn’t like him being a bourgeois silk merchant exploiting the workers. Maybe. Who knows. Wikipedia features an entire article dedicated to the Disappearance of Jim Thompson. So you can read that. There are a lot of who knows there. It also links to another article about people that disappeared into thin air. Loads of people have gone missing, people that walked into jungles, people who climbed up mountains and people who just walked out of the door. If there’s anything to be learnt from this, I haven’t found it yet.

Whoop.
That’s all you’ll hear.
They might be aliens abducting people in their space ships.
Maybe. Who knows.

A popular dish in Malaysia is Tom Yam, a spicy soup with bamboo and shrimp. It is not a dish that I particularly like, but sometimes I’ll give it go for the sake of variation. But then, after all, bamboo is a wood. It is not a food. So, there you go.
Spicy, the man asked.
Yes, I said, I like spicy.
And I do but when his wife served the bowl with the red fluid swirling in it and, heedfully, put a roll of toilet paper next to it, I knew I was in for some seriously hot food. Carefully I took a spoonful and it wasn’t so bad. It is never the first spoonful that does you in. Soon sweat dripped from my brows as I was chewing on some unforgiving piece of wood. A little kid was marching up and down the pavement in front of me, beating his toy drum. When I sucked on a thread of vermicelli from the soup it broke and slapped against my cheek causing a drop of soup to get into my left eye. It hurt, I cried, the agony, the little  man was marching, beating his drum,  tears in my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing. Slimes from my throat, sweaty palms, everything was burning, I dared not touch anything for fear it would get worse. I made it through but if I’ll ever be eating this soup again, I swear, I’ll be wearing goggles.

Next post: 7 Habits of completely ineffective people.

 

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Downtime in Malaysia

In the alley behind China street I saw an Indian man putting his hands together and bowing respectfully to a Chinese shrine. Then he placed a cigarette in the shrine, next to some glasses of water and the usual mess of burnt incense. Then he bowed again and stepped back. Hindus understand polytheism and acknowledge a multitude of gods. When Buddhism became popular in India it was without much further ado that it was incorporated in the vast pantheon of Hinduism and till the present day Buddha is venerated on the subcontinent as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
It reminded me of the popular novel Life of Pi where the protagonist, an Indian boy, has no problem with subscribing to different world religions at the same time which, I think, handsomely shows the innate human capacity to hold conflicting beliefs at one and the same time.

Behind a large coffee I sat monitoring the tourists in the souvenir bazar below in the Central Market. It was nice and comfy thanks to the air conditioning. My eye fell on a man who took photographs of the passage that was lined with tacky tourist shops in both directions. It was hard to think why he would do that. What could possibly be the joy of going through your photos and relive the fakeness of this gaudy bazar. I understand the importance of owning some nice memento of your travels to put on display back home but it eludes me why you would want to remember the ugly shops where these are sold.

After KL I went back to the Cameron Highlands to enjoy the cool hills, the hikes and the nice food. Having little peaks of happiness when I spotted a sunbird fluttering among the flowers in the garden, little drops of rain that had fallen the night before on the big leaves and that shone like diamonds, or even getting absorbed in seeing the powder milk slowly dissolving in my morning coffee….

When I bought my bus ticket to Tanah Rata, the principal town in the Cameron Highlands, I was given the option to take out an insurance for 0.40 RM. The woman who sold the tickets pointed at a small sticker above the booth that listed the reimbursement for losing a hand or a foot or any combination thereof. During much of the bus trip I tried to work out the respective values of these extremities.

One night, the friendly proprietor of the hotel brought me a giant cicada (maybe 6 cm) and when I held it in my hand it started vibrating and producing that remarkable rasping noise. It felt like a wooden toy with an intricate mechanism rattling off. I intend to read up on it because I know it has an interesting biology. There was something about their lifecycles being in pairs of prime numbers so that they swarm in a highly unpredictable manner which protects them from predators who have no way of co-evolving with them. It has to do with factorising products of prime numbers, as I recall, a method used in a similar vein in cryptology… Absolutely fascinating… And yes, I know, once a geek, always a geek…

cicada

Cicada

On the parking lot in the centre of the town there is a Ramadan market every day where people buy delicious snacks to break their fast after sunset. Some days I buy sate with peanut sauce, so good you won’t believe it, and the good part is I don’t have to wait till sunset.

In the morning I normally breakfast with uttapam to which I have taken a liking. After the first time I was fairly confident and waved the menu away:
Ulapam, I ordered.
Pardon? said the Indian woman.
Upalam,  I said, less confident now.
You have to speak more clearly, she said.
Uttapul?

Uttapam

Uttapam, a popular South Indian dish

 

The hotel I stayed at had a beautiful garden with many fragrant flowers

flowers

Some flowers

Coming back from one of my hikes I passed this construction site:

welcome

jungle_selfie

Taking a break during one of my walks

Hiking

Tiger attack

 

Malacca

The bus from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca was cheap, fast and comfortable. It was wonderful to read in a comfortable reclining seat while being cooled by an agreeable dry air conditioning and it was with some annoyance that I looked up when we stopped for a break, only to realise that we already had reached our final destination. It was when I was leisurely striding through the bus station towards the local bus station when I felt for my smartphone and in a rush of panic found out that I had left it on the bus. Fast pacing back to the bus, but it had gone. To the information desk and from there to the bus company’s ticket booth and somebody who worked with buses pointed out where the bus I had taken now stood, but the driver was gone. Where was he? Why do drivers leave their bus? Do they have no sense of duty?  Back to the company’s ticket booth, impatiently waiting and cursing, then back to the bus and there he was, the glorious  driver, who had returned from wherever he was, now sleeping on one of the comfortable reclining seats and, on my knocking, which woke him up, he opened the door and with a smile he handed my phone back to me. Walking back through the bus station I knew I was the biggest idiot traveller in the world… the biggest, prolifically sweating, idiot traveller in the world, I decided, because it was extremely hot and humid.

The hostel was atmospheric and it had a tiny courtyard where somebody had tried their hand at some artsy New Age symbols. When people asked me I told them it was the WiFi code of the hostel:

WifiCode

Malacca has a rich history. It was first Malay, obviously, and then Portuguese, Dutch, British and finally Malay again. In the first half of the 15th century the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He visited what was then a small Malay settlement. When I looked up the admiral on Wikipedia he proved to have an interesting biography. His occupation was mentioned as admiral, explorer and palace eunuch, a rather unexpected career choice, I thought.  His appearance has been saved for posterity: he was 7 chi tall and had a waist that was 5 chi in circumference, which must have given him a BMI of mumble 3 point something kilowatt. Furthermore he had a high forehead, a small nose, glaring eyes, whatever that meant, white teeth, because of a life long habit of brushing them with sea salt and a voice that was loud as a bell, presumably high pitched though, given that he was a castrate after all. During his career as Chief Envoy he made seven sea voyages for the Chinese emperor, collecting tribute, trading and generally messing around the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In his controversial book, ‘1421’, the British author Gavin Menzies, claims that Zheng He may have circumnavigated the world and, almost one century before Columbus, must have discovered America.
Malacca, as other South East Asian cities, has a temple dedicated to the great admiral who is greatly revered by Chinese people in the region.  The fleets he commanded during his travels consisted of enormous ships that carried complete vegetable gardens that provided food during those long voyages and even prostitutes for, well, various reasons, good conversation and stuff. They sailed through large parts of the then known world and brought back such extraordinary treasures as ostriches, zebras and even a giraffe which undoubtedly gave rise to great excitement among Cantonese foodies at the time.

Together with Molly and Adam who I had met at the hostel I set out for lunch. Halfway the street was a queue for a restaurant that served the famous chicken rice balls. Molly was adamant: long lines mean good food, she argued. I was not so sure. Adam was happy go happy and so we waited for our food in the hot afternoon sun. When it was our turn we ordered a large portion of chicken rice balls and were seated. The chicken rice balls were very unimpressive: balls of rice and a plate with what can only be described as ‘just chicken’. The recipe was brought here by Chinese settlers from Hainan. Good riddance, the good people of Hainan must have thought.

On one of my walks I stumbled upon the old Dutch cemetery.

tombstone_Malacca

This is a photograph I took of a gravestone of some ancient Dutch trader who left his bones there. Other gravestones I saw at the ruins of the St. Paul’s Church, indicate that few of the Dutch traders at the time lived past the age of 45, succumbing to fevers, diarrhoea or the clap. Or possibly all of these together. Malacca had a brutal climate.

During the weekend there is a lively night market along Jonker Walk where old Chinese people sang Karaoke style on a podium, applauded by other old people. The day after that the podium was filled with Chinese kids playing Chinese chess. What do I know of Chinese chess? Nothing.

Malacca_street_art

Chinese street art in Malacca. Horses galore…

Next: Singapore

Being comfortable

Some afternoons I walk over to the Botanical Gardens to read.

botanical_garden

Other activities include sitting in the common area of the hostel and sipping coffee. Sometimes I play chess.

… laying on my bed listening to music… if I am  in the mood.

The squirrels make a lot of noise at times. People keep telling me they are rats but I like to think of them as squirrels. Today I have bought some durian (we are slowly coming into the season) and it was delicious, and a papaya, and that was alright.

Two photographs I took, one in the Ganesh temple and the other one in the Kuan Yin temple.

The East

In the city I smelled the glory of the fat-bellied god revealed by the incense smoke which swirled around my plastic feet slipping on the steaming broken pavement amidst the rats that scurried from cracks in the walls down holes where they were pulled by strings directed by unseen hands in dark corners because the light was scarce and the air was thick in the narrow alleys not far from where the scraping of spoons could be heard, worked by women with yellow skins like turtles in wet plastic boots yelling at customers who were shouting back in Cantonese bullets under the looming tarp that was protecting them from the rain but not noticing the dripping of the piping constructed by the first migrants that came to the malaria infested swamps to build the city before its future was foretold by the gypsy seers that still exist and who will read your hand and you know you must believe them because they wouldn’t be sitting there by night under the flyover on a piece of cardboard if they hadn’t known their own future and holding it for true and unchangeable as the laws of Babylon, far from the  rickety tables that were now laden with food and surrounded by plastic chairs on which people were eating, carefully wielding chop sticks but with room for one more who was listening to the din of wooshing gas burners, the hacking of meat, the shouting of orders, the scraping of woks, with violent fumes drifting among us, assaulting our eyes of men, women and children of all races of the world that had come there and then to taste from the kettles of the east that served chicken and pork and beef, fish and shrimp, noodles and rice, coconut and beer, tea and coffee and beer and ice and tea and mud and rats and shrieks and laughter on tables full of leftovers wiped away with dirty rags by thin legged men whose moves showed the weariness of years of dancing with bowls of soup and plates of  meat in their hands and with money in their belts as they were gleaming with sweat that would drip on the sinking streets of Chinatown.

palm

In the hostel I was greeted by the travellers that had gathered there together and they wanted to know where I was from and I told them where I was from and they went on drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and I made tea and we drank and we talked without noticing the time because it was dark and it started to rain again and before we knew it the rain was thundering down on plants in pots that were sick and tired of the water gushing down on them but there was no mercy for these petulant leaves, and the inadequate plastic roofing then started to leak so we changed places and we laughed and I made some more tea and we talked and then the rain stopped and the gushing forth of water from pipes had halted and by now we knew where we all were from and where we all would go and where we’ve all had been, only the mosquitos had come out  now and we were all rubbing our legs but there was nothing we could do and so we moved on to politics, religion, science and philosophy and who is wrong and who is right and what is wrong and what is right, seeing that the world is a mess and she said and I said and they said and we said but in the end it was not true but we said it anyway.

 

 

More Penang

I spent a long time in Penang. Outwardly, to the world, I was contemplating my life, reading up on philosophy and meditating life, the universe and everything. Penang is not a bad place for doing this. The hotel was atmospheric, there was a wide variety of food within walking distance and no malaria to speak of.

minaret

This is not a lighthouse. It’s the minaret of the mosque at Acheen Street. It looks like a lighthouse though.

In reality I was anxious, unsure about my future, uncertain even what to do with my one precious life. Unable t o make decisions, desperately trying to figure out what it was I really wanted from Life, the Universe and what to have for Breakfast…
There was no answer. After quitting my job to go travelling, I cycled through Europe, walked through the Himalayas and, after arriving  in South East Asia, finally came to a grinding halt. Why go on? I couldn’t be bothered anymore. Just more exotic locales, enervating for a while, but quickly fading and coalescing in an ever increasing blur of past adventures. There had to be more.

To help me think about these questions I turned on the internet, only to find out that the means of distraction were  in greater abundance than the means of instruction.Well, I knew that, but I ended up spending a lot of time watching YouTube videos about Quantum Mechanics, which I found very fascinating, but of very little help in answering the question of how to live my life. I felt increasingly like Schrödingers Cat, not quite sure where I was…

After reading Nietzsche, Camus, Heidegger and Tom Clancy, I found out that:

There is no purpose in life.
In other words, life is absurd.
We can therefore choose our own purpose
We can either  a) let others decide how to live our lives.
Or b)  we can be the author of our own lives.
Choose b.
We are ultimately free.
But to be free is to be responsible.
Which means that we have to choose wisely.
Maybe choose a?
Nah, choose b.
Because, if life is absurd, we can’t really go wrong here anyway.
So, be the author of your own life.
Right….

Time for coffee.

Later I tried my hand at a short animation which I greatly enjoyed making. I posted it on YouTube, which, I later realised, was futile: it is estimated that hundreds of hours  of new videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute ….!!

In the evening I ate at a foodstall next to Mad Max. This is the guy that’s charring sateys every evening. He wears an apron, safety goggles and an old baseball cap. I called him Mad Max because he resembles the crazy pilot in this movie. His burnt chicken stall stood at the corner of the street to the rotten fruit stall. That’s how Murray calls it: the rotten fruit stall. In the morning it always has several crates of oranges on offer with patches that are sold very cheaply, 30 sen per piece. After my meal I had a coffee on Chulia Street at the small stall where two Tamils serve a decent brew. It’s next to the 7-Eleven.

It was too hot to go outside and I sat under the fan, drinking tea and reading Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird. I didn’t know what a mockingbird was, but I found it a captivating and, unexpectedly, a deeply funny book..

History of Penang

Negotiations between Francis Light of the British East India Company and the Sultan of Kedah:

We like your island. Can we have it?  What? What do you mean we can’t have it? Oh, come on, it’s not like you’re doing anything with it…What’s that? We can have it if we help you against the who? The Siamese?  Who are they? They are being mean to you, are they? And the Burmese… The Burmese, you don’t like them, do you…? Good thing we have good guns and fast ships. Sure we can help you out…so  we can have the island…? Awesome.

It was then agreed that Penang would become British for 10.000 Spanish dollars per year and even today the Federal State of Malaysia pays a token 10.000 ringgit to the state of Kedah.

Francis Light died of malaria in 1791, or acutally in 1794, and was buried at the cemetery at North Road.

At the cemetery were also the graves of several  Chinese refugees from the Taiping Rebellion. This sparked my interest and I got reading about this Chinese civil war. One of the deadliest in human history and I had never even heard of it! Most historians  estimate the number of dead to be some more than 20  million (which is more than the estimated death toll of the First World War)..It started wth a disappointed candidate for the civil service who had flunked his exams for the third time and who came to believe that he was the son of God, the younger brother of Jesus Christ, rather than a dropout from the Imperial bureaucracy. The rebellion was contemporary with the American Civil War, but instead of a conflict between fighting armies, it was a total war where many civilians died.. .In a later stage there was a European contribution as well in the form of Charles George Gordon, who led the Ever Victorious Army, which I thought was a very clever name for an army.

Nothing of this has anything whatsoever to do with the History of Penang….

From the cemetery I walked back for some lunch at the sea side. There were some tea stalls under some big trees where I ordered a maggi and ice tea. A nice breeze blew from the sea. After that I walked around the fort with its cannons aimed at a mighty cruiseship that lay  docked nearby. Not much further, I passed the elegant clocktower built by Cheah Chen Eok, a Chinese millionaire, for 35.000 Straits dollars. A plaque mentioned him as being a philantropist who was known for his modesty…. He had earned his fortune in the tin mines of Malaysia where his workers were dying under miserable conditions from malaria and beri beri. This seems somehow difficult to reconcile with the idea of its owner being a philantropist….. Most miners were Chinese who, to get them through the hard days, were encouraged to smoke opium. It may have been a happy coincidence that Cheah Chen Eok was in the opium business as well….

Walking along the esplanade, I saw some Tamils with a net fishing at a sewer pipe. I winced when a revolting smell of urine reached my nose and made a mental note not to eat fish at any of the Indian restaurants… When I reached a stone bench I sat down on the hot concrete and watched container ships sailing through the Straits.

Yeah, like Cambodia was like totally chill dude, the food was amazing, tacos for under two dollars….like, totally awesome….

Tacos for under two dollars… maybe I had to go to Cambodia.
Why not?
Life is absurd…

Penang

On my first day in George Town, I visited the Keeling Mosque, built by the British East India company for the Indian moslims in their service. It  is a pretty building of Indo Saracenic architecture and seems more mature than the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur which, dwarfed by modern high rise buildings, looked a bit like a doll’s house. I had an interesting conversation with a moslim cleric in the small visitor’s centre, who explained several passages in the quran. He gave me a free copy of the holy book which I thought was a nice gesture, though, in terms of proselytising his faith, rather a waste of money . Back in the hotel I tried to read some of it, but it was very dull and repetitive. Hopefully I can change it for a Tom Clancy at the book exchange down the road..

After finding a small Malay restaurant I ordered Tom Yam which was a mistake. It’s a soup and even though I had eaten it before, I had forgotten the experience. One ingredient is bamboo and this time the cook had, in  a desperate attempt to find some sticks, cut up the garden furniture. The results were hard, undigestable bits of bamboo that I couldn’t possibly eat.

Buddha

Obese Buddha. The long ears are a sign of wisdom. The double chin is a sign of eating to much sweet and sour pork.

Some days later I walked over to the clan jetties. These are the piers that were  built by Chinese clans to offload cargo that provided jobs for the coolies in the old days. Even though nowadays they represent a more sanitised version it’s still fairly exotic shambles of mainly wooden buildings with zinc roofs. The most authentic aspect of the neighbourhood was perhaps the bad smell from open sewers, which seemed to  to be essentially nineteenth century… To this day the inhabitants don’t pay any taxes as they aren’t living on the land.

This morning it’s unusually busy at the Chinese temple. Tons of joss sticks are burnt. Other practices are the releasing of caged birds and the burning of joss paper. The first is believed creditable, although its merit seems questionable, as the birds first are caught and caged for the purpose of selling it to the pious, who will set it free and after which it probably flies back to its owner.
According to Wikipedia: Burning actual money would be untenable for most people, and is also considered unlucky in Asian cultures. This shows how reading Wikipedia can be a waste of time. Burning money would be untenable for most people. Really. Hell money, a form of joss paper has some high denominations, 10.000 dollars for example. Easy money. You just jot a few extra zeros. The ancestors will understand… Very recently a local Chinese politician has received hell  money, because he had exposed a corruption scandal. The envelope with the fake money was an obvious death threat.

Most evenings I threw frisbees on the field next to Fort Cornwallis. There was just a brief window of time after the sun set and it cooled down a bit and before it got dark with the increasing chance of a frisbee knocking your teeth out. Every other day or so we climbed up Penang Hill. Occasionally all the way. Along the way it was nice to sit down and drink free coffee with biscuits which seemed to be provided by the Chinese community. It was notably cooler up the hill.

Some days I make minor discoveries. This morning I found out that the small alley behind the hotel is the only ‘street’ in Penang that has no name. This information was provided by way of a small notice that was one of many that explained some of the history of George Town. It remains unclear how the people in this street receive their mail.

creationism

Trying my hand at water colour

Most morning I drink kopi at a small hotel in Love Lane. This little street was long used by rich Chinese Merchants to  house their mistresses, conveniently hidden from their residential areas elsewhere in the city. Kopi, the Malaysian coffee, has the quality of molten Chokotoffs. Ordered in its simple form, i.e. just kopi, will result in a kopi susu. This is coffee with milk, the milk being a dollop of condensed  milk at the bottom. The coffee used is not pure coffee, but is roasted with sugar, margarine and salt.