Category Archives: Malaysia

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.

Hiking in the Cameron Highlands II

During the last week I undertook some more hikes around Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. Some trailheads were difficult to find. To get to the start of trail no.10 you actually have to walk through somebody’s garden. No. 2 starts just behind the Chinese Temple. A monk escorted me through the temple and trhough the kitchen to the back door, where he pointed at the stairs. ‘Up here’, he said. No. 7 starts at a tea plantation but the path and the sign are only visible after you stumble through a hedge…

In Malaysia there are three main ethnic groups: the Malay, the Chinese and the Indians. When I was having dinner in a Chinese restaurant, Philip, a Christian of Indian descent,  explained the cohabitation of the groups.
The Malays have the political power, he said. They government jobs, civil workers etcetera, they are all Malays. Malays are lazy, they don’t speak English very well and are corrupt.
Very useful assets in that kind of work, I said. Philip smiled.
The Chinese have 80% of the business. They are very clever, they have a lot of money and make good investments.
How about the Indians? 
I asked.
Philip shrugged.
We work very hard…
Most Indians are Tamils from Southern India. They came here to work on the rubber plantations. These days there are also many Bangladeshis who mainly work in construction. There are several construction sites in Tanah Rata and they work from 7 in the morning to 10 in the evening. The workers actually seem to live in the building they are working at. Their laundry is hanging on makeshift clotheslines.

In the hostel I met an Eastern European entomologist who was collecting specimens for his university. He was specialised in tiny beetles that he shook out of the trees. I told him about the Indian collector that I had met before.
The Indian man. He runs up the mountain. Every morning. He sells butterflies to the souvenir shop. You know the big shop who sell the wood…. how you say in English?
The carvings? I  said.
Yes, the wood carvings. This shop is from a Chinese man. This carvings. They are not Malaysian. Hah! They are African carvings. The carvings, the masks, hah, they come from Africa. And he sells them to the tourist. Ha ha. This Chinese man, he sends the insects to Africa and they send the carvings back.
And that is legal?
I asked.
No, is not legal. Is illegal.
He said.

On my way back from Brinchang, I have a look at the Indian Temple at the edge of the village. To the right of the entrance is a shrine dedicated to the Sun, the Moon, Venus and, interestingly, Mercurry. No doubt, some Indian designer was thinking lunch when working on this text…

mercurry

In the courtyard of the temple  I see a small pit with crashed coconuts, a traditional offering in South India. The architecture is very utilitarian and stands in stark contrast to the outlandish ornaments that adorn its façade.

Hiking in the Cameron Highlands

KUALA LUMPUR

From Yogjakarta I flew back to Kuala Lumpur where I stayed for a while. Because of the sweltering heat I was looking for some indoor entertainment and found the Museum of the National Bank of Malaysia an excellent choice. It was soon to become my favourite building in the capital. It was fully airconditioned and usually empty, the toilets were marble and spotless, it afforded free wifi and the cafetaria produced reasonably priced cappuccinos. The staff seemed happy to have some distraction.  The museum must be a costly affair to maintain and with so few visitors the economic soundness of its exploitation seems debatable. Moreover, visitor numbers would soon dwindle as I prepared to leave the city.
The museum was, naturally, all about money and related items. Vaults, for example, where the money and gold are stored (for all we know). The interior of the vault of the Teikoku Bank was unscathed after the Americans dropped their bomb on Hirsohima. The rest of the city was obliterated. The Federal Reserve in New York has a vault 80 feet under the ground surrouded by solid bedrock. Very safe. The vault of the Federal Reserve in Cleveland has a door that weighs 100 tons. That’s equal to mumble mumble humpback whales. I forgot how many, I am not very good in humpback whales. No windows apparently.
All kinds of money were on display: a replica of a yap stone from the Caroline Islands in the Pacific. It had a diameter of I don’t know how many humpback whales and they possibly constituted the only stones in history to ever become legal tender. There was a short period of inflation in the nineteenth century when an ingenious American Irish sailor imported stones from nearby Palau. Nowadays, the stones form a fixed money supply as they are no longer imported or produced, which means inflation is non-existent, some economists would say that with increasing goods and services, deflation is unavoidable. Quantitative easing is predictably cumbersome… Another problem is the size and weight of the stones as the largest ones require 20 adult men to carry them..
For the rest there was all you want to know about the ringgit, the Malaysian currency. On the top floor was a small art exhibition.

Later, I stepped inside a Burger King, to give in to a craving for french fries. Feasting on fast food I worked on some notes. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre, I would imagine…

THE CAMERON HIGHLANDS

Jim Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. He was an American silk merchant who lived in Bangkok. One day he went for a walk and never came back. His body was never found. Very mysterious all that. The main attraction for me was the cool climate. I had enough of the debilitating heat.

Everything is wrong. More steel, more concrete, more roads.

To  get away from these I undertook walks through the surrounding jungle.

On my first jungle walk I met the Entomologist in the photo above.

Another walk led me to the top of Gunung Brinchang, wich was a bit  more challenging as there were some steep ascents through mud and tree roots. Low hanging clouds meant it was dark and damp and I was sweating profusely. From the top there was a road leading back to the town that passed the so called Mossy Forest. An elaborate consturction seemed purposely built for Malaysians who are less inclined to physical exercise than most foreigners from overseas. Wooden stairs and bridges accommodate an easy stroll from the car park.

pitcherplant1

Pitcher plant

When I researched the Cameron Highlands I found different ages for its surrounding jungle. Most often cited was 130 million years. If this is true than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex (otherwise known under its more splendid name the King of the Tyrant Lizards) might have roamed these forests….An entertaining thought.

Walk 5, 3 and 8 to Robinson Falls. Dismissing rumours of a mugger relieving tourists of their valuables, threatening them with a big knife. I carried a stick. I was not afraid. Trail eight seemed abandoned and I heard more noises from animals. Strange and eerie whoops sounded around me and a whisper that increased and culminated in a shrill high scream. Walking around here made it easier to understand the natives’ belief in the supernatural. It was overcast and under the trees it was remarkably dark. Monkeys rustled in the branches, but I knew not the kind. Silver leaf monkeys, but  more likely longtail macaques. I saw one sitting on a branch with a long tail.
And just when you think you are lost and expect any moment to stumble over a shallow grave with the bones of Jim Thompson, you see a little sign on a tree educating you about the the name of the tree, hung there by the Malaysian Tourist Board…. I couldn’t help thinking these signs would greatly help illegal loggers

Everything is wrong.

My neighour is wrong. She is an Englishwoman and at least a hundred years old. She feeds fish to the cats and now the grounds stink of fish. Why does she feed the cats? It’s wrong.

The Chinese manager at the hostel shouts at the little dog. Siiiiiit! Sit!… goo’ boy.
Why does he speak English to the dog? It’s wrong.

 

Odds and ends

After going through  my photos of my recent visit to the Prambanan temple complex near Yogjakarta, I thought it worth to publish a few more of them in this post.

Left:       Restoration efforts
Middle: Suprisingly realistic portrait
Right:    Earthquake damage

For Dutch readers a small compilation of Indonesian words of Dutch origin:

kamar pas
kantor pos
gordyn
sprei
vitrage
spanduk
knalpot
asbak
handuk
wortel
duit

 

Left:      Toilet instruction at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Right:    No sumbanging in the park: VERBOTEN

On my return in  Malaysia there were some interesting stories in the newspapers. Because of censorship, the newspapers resemble some latterday Pravda with many stories about the booming economy and the general advancement of the nation. Maybe it is for this reason that redactions try to spice up the pages a bit:

It was reported by the New Straits Times that a monstrous python (7,5 m) was found near a construction site. However, shortly after it was caught by members of the Civil Defence, it suddenly died after laying an egg. The government spokesman suggested that the reptile had possibly committed suicide. The egg was handed over to the local wildlife department, presumably to investigate its culinary value. Nasi Goreng Special.

In another part of the country there were several schools which reported outbreaks of mass hysteria. An interesting phenomenon which doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Several girls claimed they had seen a so called pontianak, a female vampire, in the toilets…. According to the paper: To date, more than eight ustaz, a bomoh and Islamic traditional experts have come to help.
An ustaz is a muslim scholar trained in Islam and Islamic law.
A bomoh is a Malay shaman.
And Islamic traditional experts are a bunch of bearded nitwits.

 

One smelly fruit and a wedding

Durians look intimidating because they are so big. They exceed every other fruit in size. They also exceed all other fruit in foul-smelling, some would say. Street vendors will open it for you and sometimes they provide you with disposable gloves to prevent your hands from stinking to high heaven. I think durians taste great. Quite a few hotels forbid you to take durians inside the premises because the smell is obnoxious to the uninitiated.
It looks like a football with thorns and it tastes like custard with baked onions.

Museum1

On your way to buy some durian (1906)

I was drinking kopi at my favourite food stall as a man came standing next to me. He placed a rumpled packet of cigarettes on the table.
Two ringgit, he said.
Sorry, I said.
He put the cigarettes away and looked despondent. It rained heavily and my feet were getting wet. I produced a one ringgit note and gave it to him. He put the cigarettes on the tabel, again, hoping that perhaps I had changed my mind and had warmed to the idea of smoking.
I don’t want your cigarettes, I said.
He looked forlorn.
Two ringgit, he said.
I looked away into the rain. Maybe I could make a selfie with the man.
No.
Ridiculous.
What is two ringgit to me? I thought. I felt in my pocket and found another one ringgit note and gave it to him. His face shone when he left. Soon the rain ceased and I went back to my hotel.

In the hotel an older foreigner came sitting next to me. He had a white beard and wore a panama hat. His dark tan betrayed many years of living in the tropics.
I heard you talking to Rita last night.
Yes,
I said.
Where are you from?
I am from Holland.
I thought you were American.
No,
I said.
You sound American.
Sorry,
I said.
He was from Sri Lanka and belonged to a white minority that once ruled the country when it was still known as Ceylon. He was one of the Burghers. When I was there a few years ago, I had read Running in the family, an autobiographical work that I remembered was written by Michael Ondaatje.
That’s a cousin of mine, he said.
We have a crazy family, he went on, my grandmother was crazy. She floated down the river and she was laughing. She was laughing when she was drowning.
I smiled appreciatively, he must have been referring to a passage in the book I had forgotten.
It’s a beautiful country, I ventured.
There are too many tourists now in Sri Lanka, he said. They all go to the beach. The beach is where the poor people live, he explained. We Asians don’t go to the beach. The fishermen, they live in huts on the beach and shit on the beach, next to where they live. He laughed. We only go to the beach in the weekends to swim. We don’t sit in the sun. He laughed again.

KL_Temple

Gods

When I walked around the Indian temple, trying to appreciate the opulent ornaments, I heard music coming from the inner coartyard. Two musicians were playing on their instruments, one on a nadaswaram, an Indian trumpet, the other was beating a small drum. Several people had gathered and a small wedding ceremony was under way. Curiously I sat down, leaning my back against a pillar and listening to the captivating music. The rituals were conducted by two priests who were were bare chested, dressed only in lungis. The ceremony included the moving of  flowers to the left, where they had been to the right before, a bowl with fire was swayed around and participants were given dollops of paint on their foreheads. Ancient rituals that symbolised forgotten legends (I conjectured) and I no longer watched the nuptials, but only listened to the music that had sent my mind wandering.
A white woman was taking photographs with a big camera. She was sweating profusely. Soon her Facebook page would be awash with ununderstandable scenery of these foreign rites. The drums swelled and the nadaswaram went besirk.
Afer some time the music stopped. The wedding guests had left and I walked to the vestiary where I paid 20 cents to get my slippers back.

Walking around Kuala Lumpur

After landing I took a shuttle bus from the airport to central Kuala Lumpur where I found a hostel in Chinatown.

I LOVE CHINATOWN. No more dal bhat, no more power outages, no more cold nights.

In the market in Chinatown, not far from where I was eating, there was an open air chicken butchery. When I was waiting for my Madras rice noodles, I saw how live chickens were thrown in a scalding basin. They flapped their wings like mad, quite understandably, and two managed to fall out, but after that, lay lifeless on the ground.

Dead chickens. If you don't see dead chickens, you might have installed the vegetarian version of Google Chrome...

Dead chickens. If you don’t see dead chickens, you might have installed the vegetarian beta version of Google Chrome…

In the afternoon I walked over to the Petronas Towers,but to go up to the observation deck to enjoy the views cost a whopping 85 ringgit. My guidebook, which I had picked up somewhere where it was gathering dust, mentioned 10 ringgit, but oil prices have fallen and Petronas is looking for other sources of revenu. This time I just visited the mall on the lower floors and wandered around in the cool air conditioning, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Versace had all set up shop here and there were a lot of people around who had not found the Tao of Cheap yet.