With effectively five weeks between university semesters (due to some shrewd timetabling), I decided to exploit cheap AirAsia deals to travel to Indonesia in June and July. I vacationed in Bali in 1999 for Mum’s 40th birthday, yet I have always been reluctant to “count” Indonesia as a country visited. Bali’s microscopic size and culture contrast with the vastness of the predominantly Muslim but ethnically diverse Indonesian archipelago. Consequently, Indonesia and specifically the world’s most populous island of Java were key travel targets of mine (plus Indonesia represented the cheapest overseas destination that was unlikely to be under martial law during my stay). This (comparatively) short journey has provoked a deluge of memories from that vacation in Bali, most notably the fascination locals had with Peter’s facial hair. “Like father, like son” is probably an apt saying for this trip, because the locals now are equally mesmerised/repulsed by my glorious/grotesque beard.
Flight arrangements and visa restrictions compelled me to spend six days in Malaysia prior to entering Indonesia (hardly an inconvenience). Malaysia felt like an appropriate destination to recommence my travels, since I ended “Globo Trip” in Kuala Lumpur. The monsoon season quashed my previous efforts in December to visit the East Coast of Malaysia, so this was the obvious region to travel to this time around. Immediately after arriving in downtown Kuala Lumpur, I caught an overnight bus to the Perhentian Islands in the far northeast of the country. I subsequently visited the Malay city of Kota Bharu and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to meet Australian Kayla.
The Perhentian Islands are two small, idyllic, tropical islands situated just off the Malayan Peninsula (opposite side to Penang). After a bumpy fast-boat ride to Perhentian Kecil, I was quickly reminded that small, idyllic, tropical islands are not really my thing. At eight o’clock in the morning I arrived at the main beach, which is lined with dozens of guesthouses and restaurants. The only sign of activity was an old German guy taking a yoga class. Since I was in Asia, I surmised that the conspicuous absence of practical or worthwhile forms of morning activity was surely indicative that either tourism had destroyed the authenticity of this destination or no local culture existed in the first place. I was hardly gobsmacked by the appearance of the main beach (I suppose Australians rarely are when overseas) and was disappointed in the management of the island’s environment, as rubbish and grey-water pollute the no-longer pristine rainforest. Within short-time, I asked myself the question I always seem to pose when I arrive on an island (and fail to remember later), “What the hell am I going to do here?” I concluded that staying on tropical islands can be enjoyable if you’re with other people, but I was all alone on Kecil and with little to do, I certainly felt the isolation! I went snorkelling in the warm waters, tried to trap a large monitor lizard and read an obscure book (recommended by an equally obscure person) about Elizabeth I attending a chess tournament in sixteenth century Constantinople as a child. I stayed in a primitive bungalow for the night, which seemed satisfactory until I was bitten hundreds of times as I attempted to sleep and arose in the morning with a puffed-up face (I still have marks around my elbows from the ordeal!). Needless to say, one night on the Perhentian Islands was more than enough for me!
Since Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown (Penang) are the three cities tourists usually visit in Malaysia, few foreigners see a traditional Malay city. These three cities feature culturally diverse and wealthy populations, which is not necessarily reflective of all cities in Malaysia. I decided to visit the ethnically homogenous and “traditional Malay” city of Kota Bharu (as described by the travel bible, Lonely Planet), located in Kelantan State near the Thai border, to deepen my understanding of Malaysian society. When I wrote about Malaysia seven months ago, I described the country as a nearly “developed” society. This seemed like an appropriate comment after visiting the clean, organised, multicultural and either ultra-modern or well-preserved urban cores of Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown. However, it has become apparent from visiting Kota Bharu how patently naïve that label was. The economic disparity between Kota Bharu and the capital is quite extreme and perhaps akin to the contrast between Naples and Northern Italian cities like Turin and Florence. The residents of Kota Bharu are hardly destitute, but the difference in opportunities the locals have and what I have was certainly palpable; as is often the case in developing countries. To me, Kota Bharu exemplifies the unevenness and complexity of Malaysian society.
While Kota Bharu lacked the aesthetics and vibrant culture I had hoped for, it did at least provide an educational experience into the reality of Malay communities. The central area of Kota Bharu is situated beside a wide river near the Pacific coastline. The city’s primary attractions are clustered into a riverside zone and include the sultan’s palace, several museums and the principal mosque. These buildings all feature characteristic Malay architecture, but are not really grandiose or noteworthy. Most of Kota Bharu’s buildings are either unassuming and slender or megalithic concrete blocks, which creates an incongruent and ultimately ugly urban landscape. Most buildings are severely dilapidated, the central area is congested and disorderly and the gutters are piled with rubbish and stink of wastewater. The traditional Malay handicrafts Kota Bharu is apparently renowned for are not easily detectable, as most shops are brimming with tacky merchandise.
Kota Bharu’s wonderful central market is the most intriguing precinct in the city. The indoor market is multi-level and designed around a large atrium space. The ground level surrounding the atrium is dominated by fishmongers and butchers, who use the same concrete benches throughout. The second and third levels stock spices, kitchen wares and other dry goods. Fruit and vegetable produce is sold in the atrium space by Muslim women that wear vibrant traditional garb. The colourful scene can be viewed from the upper levels.
Never before have I spotted so many rats – half a dozen – as I did in Kota Bharu. They were not just any rats, but very BIG rats. Now I can appreciate the oft used description of a rat being “as big as a cat”. One particular rodent was so gargantuan that it had the temerity to nip at the body of a cat. This permitted me the rare opportunity to make a direct comparison between the two creatures. I observed “that rat is literally as big as that [albeit small] cat!” In a city bereft of interesting attractions, perhaps the reason why tourists flock here is the excellent chance of spotting mega-fauna.
Prior to departing Kota Bharu, I watched a Malaysian television program parodying Australian dining norms. The Malaysians apparently find our palate hilariously bland and think our usage of knives to eat rice with is quite bizarre. Well knives may not be entirely practical, but it certainly is more sophisticated than eating rice with one’s hands! Now, I can appreciate the virtuosity of the practise in Laos, because the rice is very sticky and eaten with intentionally dry side dishes. However, the Malays eat not-so-sticky rice with curries and wet sauces and the resultant eating process is a very messy affair (proof that practice does not equal perfection if the wrong technique is employed). But as the most adventurous diner I know, I had to have a crack at eating sloppy-jalopy food with my hands. From Kota Bharu’s central market, I bought a serving of nasi kerabu wrapped in banana leaf. Nasi kerabu is Kota Bharu’s signature dish, consisting of coconut rice with a spicy fish mixture. I returned to the privacy of my empty hostel dormitory and shoved my hands into the glug. With rice and curry sauce dripping down my arm and festering in my beard, I was most embarrassed when a Japanese guest entered the room. I should clarify that Chinese Malays do not partake in this abominable practice, preferring to use chopsticks instead.
My sudden idea of travelling to Southeast Asia in the winter holidays inevitably spruiked envy in some people and perhaps exposed the exploitative nature of others. Part-bogan Australian Kayla (from the Africa tour) recognised opportunistically that if she gate-crashed my trip, she would effectively acquire the services of a tour guide and someone to take care of all travel arrangements for free. Kayla employed the skill that teachers particularly excel at, manipulation, to coerce an invitation from me. Without subtlety, she feigned surprise and gleefully signed on. Teaching commitments, however, limited Kayla’s hijacking to less than half the length of my trip, which I decided was a tolerable outcome. Indeed, as I write this entry near the warm and pristine waters of tropical Lombok with a mixed juice at hand, I imagine she’s disciplining rascals in cold and bleak Melbourne.
I spent two days in Kuala Lumpur prior to flying to Java, with Kayla arriving partway through. I visited the national mosque (renowned for its modernist and tropical inspired architecture) and the city’s museum of Islamic arts (famed for its assemblage of art and examples of architecture from throughout the Islamic world) before Kayla touched-down, in case she lacked my enthusiasm for architecture. Our itinerary in Kuala Lumpur centralised around food, as I introduced Kayla to the wonders of Malaysian cuisine. We ate roti canai at a Mamlak (Indian-Muslim) canteen, attended a somewhat disappointing Malay night-market, ate noodles and popiah from hawker stalls at a Chinese-Malay morning market and enjoyed a banana leaf meal at a South Indian restaurant for dinner. We also visited the Batu Caves north of the city, which are large caverns with whimsical Hindu temples inside.
I suspect Malaysia will be a country I continue to travel back to, because AirAsia’s connecting flights through Kuala Lumpur are so ridiculously cheap. I feel satisfied though with my exploration of the Peninsula, so Georgetown (Penang) will be my destination next time I return.
That’s all for now,