A Travellerspoint blog

Malaysia

Northeast Malaysia

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,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 02:45 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Straits Settlements

Photos of Malaysia

My habitual procrastination in writing last year usually resulted in significant delays in visiting destinations and publishing their corresponding blog entries. However, the interval between travelling to the Malaysian “Straits Settlements” of Melaka and Penang and producing the relevant discussion represents a particularly excessive incidence of idleness. My hope of “completing” the blog upon returning to Melbourne quickly fizzled away as my burn-out from writing exhaustive self-glorifying pieces appeared incurable and perpetual. Now that I have temporarily departed the country once more, my interest in documenting my travels has spiked yet again. I have decided to exploit this sudden surge of enthusiasm to finish the last entry addressing the previous trip, before commencing the evaluation of this one.

As previously discussed, Malaysia features a culturally diverse composition with three major ethnic groups: Malay (Muslims; control the political power), Chinese (control the economy) and Indian (Hindus or Muslims, often marginalised). This multiculturalism is best exemplified in the “Straits Settlements” on the west coast of the Malayan Peninsula. The “Straits Settlements” is a British colonial reference to three strategically important cities situated on the Straits of Malacca (one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, linking China to India and the West): Singapore, Melaka and Penang. Between visits to Kuala Lumpur and the Cameron Highlands during my fortnight in Malaysia last December, I stayed in the World Heritage listed old towns of Melaka and Georgetown (on the island of Penang). The rich heritage and eclectic architecture of both cities were certainly intriguing. However, like all other visitors I was encapsulated by just one aspect of the “Straits Settlements”: the food.

The political and economic significance of Melaka has become negligible, but the city was formerly the most important in Southeast Asia. With the Melaka River dispersing into the Strait of Malacca halfway down the Malayan Peninsula, the area represented an idyllic location for maritime trade to be conducted between Eastern and Western civilisations. When Islam spread to the region in the fourteenth century, the Sultanate of Malacca was established around the river-mouth. Prospering from an alliance with the all-powerful Ming dynasty of China, the Sultanate grew to encompass the entire Peninsula, parts of Sumatra and therefore the entire Strait. The incredibly valuable location of Melaka inevitably made it a target of European colonisers. The Portuguese were the first to seize control of the city in the early 1500s, followed by the Dutch and then the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Under British rule, Melaka’s importance waned as the British East India Company (which administered the Straits Settlements) favoured Singapore and Georgetown. Melaka became somewhat of a backwater, until it was revived in the name of tourism in recent decades. Throughout the colonial era and before, thousands of Chinese migrated to Melaka for trade, while Indians migrated for work.

Each occupying power and ethnic group has left an indelible mark on Melaka. The historic core of Melaka is Chinatown, an area dominated, as the name connotes, by the Chinese (and “Nonya” people: descendants of marriages between male Chinese migrants and local Malay women in the sixteenth century). The narrow streets of Chinatown are composed of rows of colourful and intricately decorated two-storey townhouses built by Chinese merchants over the centuries. The architecture of the townhouses is a blend of European Classical elements with Chinese decorative motifs (curved roofs are especially prevalent). The townhouses are now used for boutique hotels, quaint little hostels, Chinese-Nonya restaurants, museums and shops selling Chinese paraphernalia. Several highly ornamental and quintessentially Chinese temples, devoted to different faiths (some simultaneously), are also scattered throughout the area. On the other side of the Melaka River is the area used by the Dutch and British colonial authorities for administration. The town square consists of a maroon windmill, town hall and European-style shopping arcade that look decidedly out-of-place in Malaysia and rather kitsch regardless of the locality. A magnificent replica of the palace occupied by the Sultans of Malacca is situated nearby. The wooden structure showcases traditional Malay design, which is quite vernacular and conducive to tropical conditions. The building is raised above the ground to reduce decay and the interior quite open for the circulation of air. Stereotypical “Asian” motifs are evident (the roof), but are more refined than in Chinese architecture. Little India is characterized by gaudy decoration and banana leaf restaurants, but it is much less dramatic than its equivalent in Georgetown. A small Portuguese enclave exists in the suburbs of Melaka, where the mixed-race locals are Roman Catholic and speak a remote dialect of Portuguese.

Melaka’s culinary scene reflects its multicultural population, with excellent Chinese, Nonya and Indian food available. Malaysia is a country that doesn’t bother with ostentatious restaurants or tourist traps, so travellers eat amazing meals for less than $3 with the locals. In Little India, I encountered the wonderful concept of banana leaf meals. Upon sitting down to a shared table, a waiter placed a banana leaf in front of me (to act as a plate) and piled on the rice. Another waiter then poured dhal or curry sauce over the rice and another dolloped three vegetarian dishes (curries, pickles or salads) on the leaf. This is enough for a meal, but you can also select small servings of meat curries for additional cost. Chinese food in Melaka predominately consists of dishes from the Southern kitchen. Delectable dim sum for breakfast, spicy and wet noodle dishes and Hainese chicken are thus ubiquitous. Melaka is renowned for Nonya cuisine, which is characterised by using Chinese cooking techniques with Malay ingredients. Curry laksa is probably the cuisine’s most internationally recognisable dish, consisting of chicken or seafood with vegetables and noodles in a rich coconut milk broth. The giant spring rolls known as popiah feature pancakes wrapped around stewed turnip (sweet and surprisingly delicious), fried lard, fried bean curd, lettuce, coriander and a dark soy sauce. The Melaka specialty of rojak is a crunchy salad of turnip, cucumber, croutons, peanuts, shrimp paste, palm sugar and lime juice. I went to a night market on the main street and ate “satay” from one of the stalls. This involved selecting skewers of food (beancurd, seafood, fish balls and unidentifiable meat products), boiling them in steaming water and eating them with peanut sauce. Cendol is the repulsive dessert of choice for Chinese Malays. A giant ball of shaved ice is smothered in ultra-sweet durian (a spikey fruit) syrup and palm sugar syrup and sits above a bizarre mixture of red beans and jellies.

Penang Island is situated near the Thai border on the western side of the Malayan Peninsula. The British East India Company acquired the island from the local sultan by providing defence guarantees against the approaching Siamese. Georgetown was established as a key trading post on the Straits of Malacca and has since flourished into one of Malaysia biggest and wealthiest cities. Georgetown’s historic core sprawls over a vast area and consists of an orthogonal layout of wide streets. It thus lacks the small-town vibe of Melaka. The Old Town is divided into two primary areas, Chinatown and Little India.

Chinatown consists of merchant townhouses and large temple-compounds owned by Chinese clans. Nineteenth-century Chinese migrants established “clan-houses”, with each representing a different ancestral family or village. Fierce rivalry developed between the clan-houses and their temple-compounds became increasingly more opulent. I visited the Khoo Kongsai “clan-house”, the largest and most impressive in Georgetown. The clan-house is administered by a group of elders. One of its key purposes is to provide financial support for clan members to study at university (either in Malaysia or abroad). Inside the main temple hall, golden plaques representing the tertiary degrees completed by clan members take pride of place. The veneration of education appears to be prioritised ahead of the appeasement of their gods. The existence of the clan-houses has certainly perpetuated strong and independent traditions of Chinese culture in Georgetown.

Little India is the most atmospheric area of the city. The structural composition is relatively similar to Chinatown and other districts, but of Little India exudes a permanent sense of festivity. Hindu iconography, flower bangles, colourful saris and blaring Bollywood music are bountiful in this crowded area. It is a slice of India, though cleaner and more orderly than what I imagine the real thing is like.

Does anyone want a Qu'ran for Christmas? I was given one by an imam after our discussion about Islam, filmed by a Malaysian Islamic Network! I thought he would just explain the architecture of the mosque I visited, but unfortunately it turned into a session of preaching and lecturing. I can never concentrate when people babble on about how individually great and righteous their religion is in comparison to others (I was more focused on avoiding eye contact with the camera). "May Allah find you in life!" That won't be necessary, Malaysian food is enough to keep me happy.

Let’s face it, the only reason why people travel to Penang is to gorge on incredible street food. If heaven exists, then a foodie would perceive it as resembling Georgetown. The island is utterly obsessed by food, with delectable dishes prepared in every direction one looks (or smells). Tourists partake in the local tradition of attempting to fit as many meals into a day as possible (I suppose meal proportions and costs are conducive to this). I don’t quite understand how the residents of Georgetown maintain relatively slender figures, since all they seem to do is consume. Georgetown is the only place in the world I have been to where the regulation question between travellers is not, “Have you seen [tourist attraction] yet?” but instead ask, “Have you tried [unimaginably tasty street food dish] yet?” Visitors are provided with two maps at their hotels: a normal tourist map, which everyone discards of, and a street food map, which functions as the Holy Bible to visitors. If vegetarianism festers in your family, then Penang is certainly the place to cure those affected.

Chinese hawker-stall culture dominates the culinary scene in Georgetown. Hawker stalls are found in in “food courts” (exceptionally busy venues where dozens of stalls surround seating areas), night markets and seemingly random locations on the streets. Each hawker stall specialises in one Chinese-Malay (lighter and spicier than Chinese food in China) dish, which usually involves noodles. The following list ranks my favourite noodle hawker dishes in Georgetown:
1. Char kway teow: flat noodles fried with prawns, cockles, beansprouts, Chinese sausage and soy sauce and stir-fried quickly over exceptionally high heat
2. Chee cheong fun: steamed and rolled rice noodle served with sweet sauce, mixture of shrimp paste and chilli sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds
3. Char koay kak: cube noodles made from parsnips and fried with beansprouts, shallots, chilli
4. Assam laksa: noodles in a rich fish and tamarind broth with vegetables, mint and shrimp paste (very different to curry laksa; quite sour)
5. Hokkien mee: noodles served in a thick prawn and pork broth, garnished with boiled egg, sliced pork, fried shallots and chilli paste
6. Wan tan mee: noodle soup with wantons, sliced BBQ pork and greens

Indian food is delicious in Georgetown, with thali sets, banana leaf meals, fried snacks such as samosas and onion bhajias (for 20 cents each!) and Indian sweets abundantly available. The Indian-Muslim community have adopted Indian spices with the cooking techniques of Malays and Chinese to develop a cuisine unique to Penang (Mamak). The hawker-stall noodle dish of mee goreng is the classic example of Mamak fare. Yellow noodles are fried with chicken, boiled potatoes, fried soya bean cake cubes, flour fritters and gravy made from tomatoes and chili and lime. Mamak canteens selling roti canai are found throughout Penang and Malaysia. It is a typical breakfast dish. Roti bread is cooked on a flat plate with copious amounts of oil and often an egg. It is served with rich curries (for the record, my side dish of curry featured chicken!). Nasi kandar is a popular meal for later in the day. Rice is served usually with a piece of chicken and ladles of different sauces are theatrical poured onto the rice from big cauldrons of curry. The dishes are all sloped together, creating what I thought was a rather confusing meal.

The Straits Settlements of Melaka and Penang offer relatively similar experiences: colonial history, old world atmosphere, cultural diversity and sensational food. The flabbergasting range of Penang’s lip-smacking street food certainly positions Georgetown as one of my favourite cities in the world. No doubt my beloved readers will conclude disapprovingly that I consumed an extravagant quantity of food in Melaka and Penang, but rest assured I returned home at an appropriate time to detox: Christmas Day!

The blog for Globo Trip 1 is finally done!

Liam

Posted by Liamps 18:56 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Cameron Highlands

Malaysia photos

Between visiting the culinary heavens of Melaka and Penang, I stopped in the Cameron Highlands to dabble in a spot of exercise. The Cameron Highlands are situated around four hours north of Kuala Lumpur in the interior of Peninsula Malaysia. Logically, the area is substantially cooler than the lowland coastal cities because of the altitude. The Cameron Highlands are thus a popular holiday destination for foreigners and locals alike (remember, Malaysians are very affluent for Southeast Asia). The area provides respite from the perpetual heat and humidity that typifies most of Malaysia. That was the justification for the British to found the Cameron Highlands as their most extensive hill station in the 1920s (colonial era). The highlands are thus dotted with English-style buildings, gardens and establishments; in the heart of Southeast Asia. The Cameron Highlands are the perfect antidote to the heat and incessant crowds of the coastal cities.

The small town of Tanah Rata serves as the base for tourist in the Cameron Highlands. After I arrived in Tanah Rata in the mid-afternoon, torrential rain bucketed down for the rest of the day and evening. This restricted me to this pleasant but uninspiring town for the first day. Since I was travelling in the monsoon season for Eastern Peninsula Malaysia, I was rather pessimistic about my chances of exploring the nature the next day without being completely saturated. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at my guesthouse overlooking their manicured English garden.

Fortunately, the weather cleared up the following morning and remained dry for the entire day. I exploited this opportunity and decided to hike on “Trail 10” through the “jungle”. In the Cameron Highlands, every conceivable physical activity is heavily promoted (including hiking). Given this, I was somewhat surprised to discover a complete lack of signage for Trail 10 and had difficulty in locating its starting point. For those interested, the trail connects to a café garden situated behind a complex of derelict holiday apartments and car-parks. Despite the hordes of tourists in the area, it was quickly apparent that few opt to hike the jungle trails (or at least Trail 10), as I was continuously clearing spider webs that were blocking the path. The trail ascended a small mountain which overlooked Tanah Rata and the broader area. The views were not particularly spectacular for me, as cloud-cover affected clear vision. Predictably, the trail disappeared at the summit. I scrambled up an almost vertical slope next to a huge power-line (kind of spoils the natural aesthetics) and identified a new trail (or the second section of the previous trail?). The trail led me through an ethereal and isolated world of moss and dampness. Tree canopies completely enclosed this area from the outside and the light was noticeably dimmer. Tree trunks, branches and exposed roots were draped in thick moss. Clumps of moss hung from the trees like vivid green beards. I left this enchanting realm and descended through the rainforest. The path abruptly terminated at a power station and I was required to find my way back to town following the unsigned roads.

The Cameron Highlands is particularly renowned for its tea plantations, because of both the quality of the tea leaves and the scenery of the plantations. In the afternoon, I walked to Cameron Bharat Tea plantation located about five kilometres from Tanah Rata. Despite having to walk on the windy main road/highway, it was quite a pleasant excursion as I passed numerous fern gullies and Tudor-style mansions. The scenery of the tea plantation was really exception. I find it amazing how this particular crop can look so attractive when viewed en masse, because individual bushes are rather ho-hum. Several hillsides have been completely deforested and now feature monotonous seas of manicured tea trees. Symmetrical paths perpendicularly divide the trees from each other, creating a “checkerboard” effect. I strolled through the plantation briefly, but this was not overly interesting because the main appeal is the panoramic views.
On the next day, I joined a tour of attractions located further afield. The Sungei Palas Tea Estate was the constitute component of the trip. The scenery at Sunei Palas is even more dramatic, because is sprawls across a rugged landscape of mountains and valleys. The tea trees were planted in the 1920s, although they can live for more than two hundred years. Naturally, they grow to more than four metres and the leaves grow in less dense clusters. Consequently, the trees are continuously pruned to keep them below waist height. Black, white and green tea leaves are all produced from the same tree. We also hiked through another mossy forest near the summit of a mountain. Everything was covered in lime green moss, including the ground. The surface was therefore very soft and squelchy.

Since the Cameron Highlands is such a touristic area, I had limited expectations about the quality of the food. Yet even here, the Malaysian kitchens delivered. My disappointment at the weather on the first day was abated by a delicious bowl of Malay noodle soup, consisting of chicken, vegetables and thick spicy broth. In the evening, I shared a “steamboat” dinner with a Frenchman at a Chinese restaurant. A large metallic vat was placed on our table that featured two boiling soups inside (chicken soup and tom yum). We were given plates of chicken, fish, squid, fish-balls, prawns, crab sticks, bok choi, fried tofu and noodles to cook in the soups. At the restaurant, I also discovered that star-fruit makes a sensational juice: refreshing and substantially more tasteful than when the fruit is eaten solid. I decided that indulging in afternoon tea was a necessity in the Cameron Highlands, so I went to café promoting Christianity and drank passionfruit-flavoured tea with a scone and homemade strawberry jam. In the evening, I ate chicken tikka and an assortment of other sub-continental dishes, though this was the most disappointing Indian food I ate in Malaysia

While eating is ultimately the number one priority for any traveller to Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is a pleasant reminder that the country offers more than just plates and plates of delicious hawker food. The rainforests (especially the mossy areas) and tea plantations are exceptionally beautiful and highlights of my trip in Malaysia. One aspect of the Cameron Highlands that I am less enthusiastic about is how the solitary main road is festooned with touristy souvenir shops and attractions, such as strawberry farms and butterfly houses. But it is easy to escape the crowds, because most visitors are too lazy to hike any of the “jungle trails”.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malaysia photos

Posted by Liamps 20:04 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia photos

Arriving in downtown Kuala Lumpur was such a relief. “I am back in the developed world! Hooray!!!” Steel-and-glass skyscrapers, neon lights, English advertisements, garbage bins, the Big M… I had definitely returned home to the West. I didn’t quite “miss” Western society in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), but the subjective normalcy of sighting international brands, modern infrastructure and functional systems in Kuala Lumpur delighted the senses. Even the atrocious weather of intense downpours failed to dampen my sudden surge of enthusiasm.

Throughout Globo Trip, I have “jumped” between different regions (sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, Europe to North Africa, Middle East to Europe etc.) and felt energised by striking changes. This certainly occurred when I travelled between Indochina and Malaysia, as I discovered how surprisingly dissimilar these regions are. Malaysia is on target to become a “developed” country by 2020 and the people are noticeably wealthier than other Asian societies. They wear contemporary clothes, use the latest electronic gadgets, drive nice cars or motorcycles (i.e. no 1970s Datsuns pollute the streets) and are often rather chubby (indicative of prosperity). The affluence of the local population removes the awkwardness felt by Westerners in countries like Cambodia or Laos, where extreme economic disparity is obvious. Trucks converted into public buses, carts pulled by water buffalo, stray dogs, flocks of chickens, piles of burning garbage, broken pavement and derelict buildings are absent from the streetscapes of central Kuala Lumpur and any city of Peninsular Malaysia. This is an ultra-modern country (aesthetically at least) with all the vestiges of capitalist development mixed with Asian ethnicities, languages, religions, architectures and cuisines. Sure, Malaysia is full of Asian drivers, so like any Asian country the roads are still hardly safe for the innocent pedestrian. But lines and arrows are painted onto the tarmacs, so at least these inept drivers have some guidance. Malaysia was a suitable destination to conclude Globo Trip in, as it provided a comfortable transition back into Western society.

Undoubtedly Malaysia’s most appealing attribute is its remarkable diversity (well, perhaps after the food). Malaysia is a multicultural society composed of three predominant ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Malays form a slight majority, while the Chinese account for nearly a quarter of the population and Indians approximately a tenth. However, the proportions seem virtually identical to the ignorant traveller. This is because the Chinese and Indian communities are particularly concentrated to the cities (where tourists go), own the businesses and work in the tourism sector (where tourists meet them). The multicultural dynamic is quite different to other countries with ethnically diverse populations, such as Australia and the United Kingdom. While ethnic and religious minorities in Australia are free to practice their traditional customs, I think there is an unofficial expectation for everyone to assimilate to a common “Australian” society. There are certainly governmental desires for the manifestation of a homogenous “Malaysian” identity, but the reality is that three very distinct and very independent cultures live within the same country. Malaysian Malays are obviously native to the Malayan Archipelago; they are Muslims (as defined by the constitution) and speak Malay as their mother tongue. Malays are distinguished (to a Caucasian’s eye) from Chinese by their skin colour (darker) and attire (women wear colourful Islamic headscarfs). Malaysian Chinese (most historically migrated from Southern provinces) are generally better educated, dominate the business sector and account for sixty per cent of national income. The Chinese religion incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestral worship; but worldly success is given greater veneration (they are thus quite Western). Malaysian Indians (most historically migrated from Southern states) constitute a disproportionate percentage of the professional workforce, particularly in the medical and legal fields. They are usually Hindu, listen to Bollywood music clips and the women wear colourful sub-Continental attire. Racial tensions have certainly flared up in Malaysia since Federation, but on the surface the three ethnic groups seem to coexist harmoniously. Businesses usually employ Malay, Chinese and Indian staff members simultaneously, which is completely different to the situation in Bosnia (Muslims, Serbs and Croats live in complete separation and in hatred). “Malaysia truly Asia” is an apt promotional slogan for this country, as the continent’s two great civilisations are present in this Islamic Southeast Asian nation.

On first impressions, Kuala Lumpur reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong. Not necessarily as amazing, but I thought the similarities were there. Glitzy skyscrapers tower over fading British colonial buildings; tangles of expressways, railways and monorail lines snake through the dense urban fabric; tropical trees and gardens provide greenery and freshness to the concrete jungle and exclusive shopping malls dot every district. Kuala Lumpur is a quintessential East Asian metropolis where the technological advancements of the present and the future define the city more so than the past.

East Asian cities characteristically lack a centralised core; and Kuala Lumpur is no exception. The layout of Kuala Lumpur is somewhat confusing to Westerners accustomed to logical urban plans. Instead of commercial and administrative entities being concentrated into a specific district, they are scattered across a vast area. Skyscrapers have sprouted up throughout the metropolis and thus many areas of Kuala Lumpur tend to feel “semi-downtown”; not suburban, but also not the nucleus. Several mini centres have formed in Kuala Lumpur including “Chinatown” and “Little India”, which are found in every Malaysian city. As the name connotes, Chinatown is brimming with Chinese eateries, souvenir stores selling “Made in China” merchandise, gaudy Chinese lanterns and, well, Chinese people. But there is also a bombastically colourful South Indian Hindu temple and many Malay workers. Most budget travellers stay in this area, which also serves as a transportation hub. Little India is located just to the north of Chinatown. I don’t really understand why this area is considered “Indian”, because the majority of people I encountered were not of that ethnic group. Little India is very busy and primarily consists of cheap department stores. Further north still is Kampung Baru, a traditional Malay village. The elders of the community have resisted corporate ambitions to develop the land and consequently preserved a suburb of antiquated one-storey dwellings bizarrely situated in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Kampung Baru is surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides, including the Petronas Towers to the southeast. The Petronas Towers held the title of the tallest buildings in the world (through dubious criteria) for six years and remain the tallest twin towers. Aside from their extraordinary height, I also think the architecture of the buildings is quite beautiful. The architect was inspired by Islamic symbols and designed the floor plan as an eight-point star. Bukit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s shopping and entertainment epicentre. Swanky retail stores, neon lights, overpriced restaurants and dodgy street hasslers define this area.

Not everything about Kuala Lumpur is modern and glitzy; quaint remnants of the British colonial past continue to exist in certain areas of the city. British presence on Peninsula Malaysia began in the late eighteenth century, though interests were primarily restricted to the coasts. By the early twentieth century, the British Empire had formerly colonised all the Malay states and designated Kuala Lumpur, established in just 1857, as the capital. Say what you will about British colonialism, but they appear to have bestowed a positive legacy upon their former possessions in Pacific East Asia. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are vastly more developed and democratically advanced than the countries of French Indochina or Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia) gained independence in 1957 peacefully, evolved to Malaysia with the addition of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo and have maintained amicable terms with the Commonwealth ever since. Fortunately, the evil of communism failed to entrench itself in Malaysia, which has thus allowed the nation to enjoy greater prosperity than every mainland Eurasian country east of the Urals, with the exception of South Korea. But let us return to Britain’s architectural legacy in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the French in Indochina, the British opted to “fuse” European buildings with Eastern stylisation (Orientalism), with Mughal architecture of North India and Moorish of North Africa particularly used as sources of inspiration. This initiative resulted in the creation of several whimsical but also spectacular institutions in Kuala Lumpur. The style is manifested magnificently in the city’s most elegant mosque, the Masjid Jamak, designed by an Englishmen. Merdeka Square is a vast green square lined with Tudor-style buildings and was used as a cricket pitch during the British epoch. It is also evident in the KL train station and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (characterised by copper cupolas). Typical Victorian and Edwardian shophouses can also be found scattered throughout Chinatown, decaying from the humidity.

The gastronomy of Cambodia and Laos were rather uninspiring, so I was hopeful Malaysia would provide slightly more interesting culinary offerings. Malaysia easily exceeded all hopes and expectations and established itself as one of the best countries I have travelled to for food. The ethnic composition of Malaysia has basically resulted in the country consisting of three sensational cuisines (Malay, Chinese and Indian) instead of one. Another wonderful aspect of Malaysia’s food scene is the complete absence of tourist restaurants. Every eatery (of which there are unthinkable amount) is always packed with locals, which keeps the prices low and the quality high. Comfortable furniture and fancy décor never feature, unless you’re stupid enough to eat at expensive establishments (this is a country where luxury tourists should eat at the same places as budget-minded travellers; especially in Penang). My first stop in Kuala lumpur was a “Mamak restaurant”, which are 24-hour diners that Indian-Muslim food. Roti canai is their particular specialty; flatbread cooked on an iron skillet with copious amounts of oil and served with curry sauce (usually South Indian-style dhal, which is quite thin). I also happily consumed a plate of nasi goreng, or Indonesian spicy fried rice. Later in the evening, I ordered Hokkien Mee from a Chinese hawker stall. Thick yellow noodles (mee) were stir-fried with chicken, bok choi, chilli and thick soy sauce. I lunched at a typical Malaysian Chinese restaurant, composed of several hawker stalls, and ate delicious char siew pork (barbequed meat seasoned with honey, spices, hoi sin sauce and sherry wine) with ginger-infused rice. I went to a fantastic Malay night market in Little Indian (see how that area is not really “Indian”) with dozens of hawker stalls. I bought a bag of deep-fried squid, battered potatoes and battered tofu, which were smothered in a delectable peanut sauce. I also bought satay skewers of an unidentified meat, which were disgusting (since this was a Muslim market, I suspect the meat was offal rather than a strange animal). A cowboy-themed vendor coerced me into eating a bowl sumptuous noodle soup with a potent fish broth. The Malay working at his stall were particularly interested in me (the spoke to each other in Malay) and laughed continuously at my beard. For sweets, I bought a couple pieces of kuih. Kuih are usually gelatinous Malay sweets made from coconut milk and steamed. On my final full-day in Malaysia, I finally sampled the national dish (at least for the Malays) of Nasi Lemak. This breakfast meal consists of fragrant coconut rice served with several condiments of your choice. I opted for a typical selection of sambal cuttlefish (cooked with chillies, mildly hot), sambal chicken (cooked with chillies and anchovies (becomes a sauce), medium hot and sweet), cucumber and a fried mixture of peanuts and anchovies. I went to a traditional Chinese café (very unassuming and all about the food) for lunch, although I ate Malay food. I sampled a sensational beef rendang. Rendang is a dry curry rich in spices (ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, chillies, garlic) and coconut milk. The meat is slow-cooked so all the liquid evaporates. If rendang is prepared properly, it is an absolute knock-out dish. The last delight I had in Kuala Lumpur was a crispy pancake that enclosed peanuts, a Malay-Indian specialty.

I half-expected to find Kuala Lumpur a characterless modern city without intrigue or charm, but I came to like it. Kuala Lumpur is the energetic heart of a rapidly growing, democratised and diverse nation. The awe-inspiring futuristic skyscrapers shelter equally impressive colonial buildings from a bygone era. Malays, Chinese and Indians coexist harmoniously, and each group enriches the city with their respective religions, fashions and cuisines. With Air Asia unbelievably low airfares through Kuala Lumpur, I have no doubt I will return to this city.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malaysia photos

Posted by Liamps 09:52 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 4 of 4) Page [1]