Wednesday, 28 March 2012

043 Malaysia: KL, Chinese towns and torrential rains

Do you know that feeling, when you get of your plane/boat/train/donkey in a place far far away, where things are a little less developed then you're used to, the feeling of stepping back in time? I had such a feeling when I got off the plane from Vietnam and into Kuala Lumpur. But then the other way around, the feeling of back to the future, of getting in the airplane in boring old 2012 and getting off in, say 2050. A super modern airport, squeaky clean. No cabbies shouting and touting you into their overpriced stinky cars. No dodgy money changers, no faintly comforting smell of rotting garbage when you leave the premisses. In stead, an air conditioned, almost sterile airport with clear signs, working escalators and a friendly guy pointing the way to the bus into town. For the really futuristicaly minded there is also a fast train (the fastest of South East Asia (SEA)), which is incidentally also a lot more expensive. I have time before meeting my friends, so I take the bus.

Kuala Lumpur, universally addressed as KL by locals and visitors alike, is the place where I awake from my semi-solitude; I will stay a couple of days with Jurek and Magda, friends from Poland who have moved out here to work; and this is also the place where I will meet Poornima, a Couchsurfer I met in Mumbai at the beginning of my trip, and with whom I will travel together for a while. I really enjoyed traveling on my own and meeting locals and fellow travelers here and there, but I am also looking forward to sharing part of my journey with someone for a little bit longer than those random encounters.

I meet Jurek and Magda in the square in front of the Petronas Towers, not the highest towers in the world anymore, but still pretty high. They live at the edge of town, but the high speed Mass Rapid Transport brings us there in a jiffy. After a few days of hanging out with a bunch of displaced Poles (they brought some friends along) I have met a couple of other expats making their living here, have had a nice cooking party in their flat, have had a good look around town, and have met up with Poornima who is here to visit her cousin.
KL is big, hot and interesting. The food is great and cheap, the beer in this Muslim country hard to find, expensive and refreshing. We visit a nearby mountain topped with the most ugly hotels ever conjured up by mankind, we have dinner in an Uzbek restaurant downtown, and we climb a long staircase infested by crazy monkeys towards a Hindu temple in a cave. This is probably one of the first places in SEA where I could imagine myself living, if it wouldn't be so bloody hot the whole time. 

Malaysians like sweet stuff. If you order a tea here, it comes standard with a generous serving of sugar and condensed milk. On the drinks menu there is a special name for tea without milk. Tea without this sweet milk AND without sugar doesn't really exists, and requests for it are only granted with a confusing, disbelieving look, but brought to you with a smile. Strange foreigners.

Malaysia's population is a mixed bunch. The majority of Malaysians are Malays, but sizable groups are ethnic Chinese and Indian, who found their way to this strategically placed trading country during recent and less recent history. Though there is religious freedom, the state religion is Islam. Part of the Indians are Muslim, the rest is Hindu. The Chinese are, well, Chinese. I see some temples which give me the impression they believe in dragons and the color red, but I assume there is a bit more to it than that.
Although this has been different in the past, the three main groups coexist quite peacefully. But the current setup has a few peculiarities. During the colonial period the Chinese and Indian parts of the population were often favored by the British, and after independence (1957) and ethnic tensions against the Chinese Malaysians ten years later, laws were introduced to promote the economic development of the Malays, or Bumiputras (Sons of the Land). These laws worked quite well, and now many Malays belong to the upper and middle class. Because of political reasons, however, these rules are kept in place and are even extended, promoting Malays over other ethnic groups (who all have Malaysian passports, we're not talking about recent immigrants here. Many Chinese and Indian families have lived in Malaysia for hundreds of years). Universities, for example, have lower entry requirements for Malays than for others, and many government jobs are reserved for Bumiputras. Most of this you don't really see as a tourist, But after I was told that many Malays who work in the service industry are not very service oriented because they get paid well for a job they don't like and will probably never lose, I started noticing how uninterested some shop attendants and restaurant waiters in KL are.

It is obvious, however, that the Malaysians (that's all the people living here) are proud of their country, and rightfully so. When we leave the capital it becomes clear that the rest of the country, albeit not as spiffy as KL, is in a good state. Modern highways connect clean cities through green jungle and industrial parks.

We visit five places in Malaysia, all in the northern half of the country. Between them they cover many different aspects of the country.
Ipoh, our first stop, is also the least interesting one. Highlights are the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel and the collection of songbirds outside a pet shop, one lonely caged cat nearly going crazy with a mixture of hatred and desire.

Penang, our next stop, is an island further to the north. This town has been a trading port for centuries, resulting in a strong Chinese influence with the beautiful architecture and cuisine that come with that. We take a bus to a mountain in the center of the island, where a mountain train takes us to the top. The guidebook promises us a scenic, one hour drive up the mountain, with a stopover in the middle to change trains. Alas, modernization has swept through this once nostalgic experience as well. The slow, open train has been replaced by a new one, hermetically sealed off to keep the conditioned air inside, speeding up to the summit in under ten minutes. And all this modernity is sold to us for a fare that has been increased tenfold . Long live Progress.
We take a one way ticket and walk down the mountain via an overgrown path through the jungle, down a very steep decline. Occasionally we encounter uberhuman mountain bikers going up. Near the foot of the mountain we meet a bunch of aggressive monkeys. Don't look them in the eye, fellow walkers had warned us. We ignore them. They hiss at us.

From the west coast a bus brings us to the central highlands, where we stay in Tanah Rata. Here it is blissfully cool. The guidebook talks about a couple of hikes one can do from this town, so one sunny morning we set out to see a waterfall. The path leads into the rainforest and passes said waterfall, a modest muddy stream. After that the path winds itself around the deep green hill sides. After a while I see something slithering from the corner of my eye, a long, black shape. Seeing visions of vicious vipers, I yell "Stop" but after closer inspection we are not dealing with a cobra but with a fairly big millipede that uses all of its many legs to get away from us.
The path takes us through some really beautiful forest and we are amazed by the verdant jungle, huge leafs and colorful orchids everywhere we look. After about an hour the reason for all this abundant green in this rainforest is suddenly revealed to us. Dark clouds crowd together overhead and someone pulls a lever to open up the sky. It starts raining. Not gradually. Not building up to a storm. No, it rains right away as if a whole angry ocean has been brought in right above us, and is now released, no holds barred, no mercy, no prisoners taken.
We turn back, but the path has instantly turned into a small river, the rocks and tree roots turned into a slippery slide. The immense trees and huge leafs above us keep out the rain for approximately twelve seconds, after that our shoes and trousers are soaking wet. Carefully and slowly we make our way back towards the waterfall. Once we near it we are surprised by the roaring sound, but when we round the last corner and have a clear view on the once modest falls, we have to stop to take in the awe inspiring sight. The small river has swelled into an unstoppable torrent, the water is a deep rich red like creamy tomato soup, the liquid containing so much eroded soil that you could almost walk over it, if it wouldn't eat you alive. The path is just out of reach of the ferocious rapids, and finally we make our way back to the hostel. There is so much rain the whole time after that, and the air is so humid, our shoes and cloths will never dry in this town. Time to hit a coastal region again.

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