Sunday, January 25, 2015

Travelogue 2015, week 3-4: Backpacking ain't what it used to be (Malaysia)

From KL we went to Taiping, and four days later to Penang. Both transfers were incredibly smooth and comfortable. Until Ipoh we had a modern, luxurious train that did up to 140 km per hour, despite it being a narrow gauge track. The busses were extremely luxurious touring cars, with chairs that would have suited intercontinental business class flight. The life of a backpacker ain't what it used to be anymore. Thank god, as the same goes for my body.
Rain / nature
In Taiping we witnessed the most spectacular tropical downpours. Miraculously we never got caught in one. The original plan to visit a "real" rainforest somewhere, has been postponed indefinitely. It is just too wet. The jungle is inaccessible.
Still we see some of the upsides of this wet equatorial tropical climate that makes Malaysia and Indonesia different from places like South India and Thailand. The abundance of the flora/vegetation is beyond belief. Each and every spot that is left untouched by humans is taken over by some small plant. In no time that'll be a bush. Larger trees host parasites like moss, ferns and hanging plants. It is not hard to imagine how the jungle could re-conquer a complete city within years.

It hurts to see how large parts of jungle are being cut down for mining (tin, cement), plantations (oil palms, rubber trees), residential areas, industrial sites, power lines and roads.

Malaysia is car country. Probably it has gone through the phases that everybody had a bicycle, a bike, a pick-up-truck. Now everybody seems to have a car. Only KL has a decent public transport infrastructure. Outside it has the characteristics of car country: high quality and low frequency.

Indian / Malay / Chinese
So why do I enjoy it so much, a country where various cultures are manifest? First, because it simply makes the streets more vivid and colourful. Secondly, because it suggests to me that it may actually be possible for humans to coexist in diversity and respecting each other's customs. Everybody is unique and that is beautiful.
At the same time I must say the various cultural groups do not have equal political or economical rights. Criticism on the ruling group is easily seen as an insult and punished severely. As a generalisation the Malay are in power, the Chinese are in business and the Indians are into manual labour.

Taiping is an old town once important for tin mining and as an administrative center. Now it is a quiet sleepy town with mainly Chinese people and typical Chinese houses. At street level they have an arched passageway making a sidewalk. Traditionally the ground floor would be both shop/workshop and living room for the family. Nowadays they are mainly just shops. The first floor has beautiful art deco-ish stucco and wooden shutters.
In Taiping too we found the most delicious food. That may well become the main theme of this journey. A vegetarian stall in a food court had superb veg versions of nasi rendang and nasi lemak, two Malay/Indonesian dishes we normally can't have.

We made a day trip to the coast. Large parts of the Malaysian coastline still have mangrove forest. The 2004 tsunami reestablished appreciation for it. Some tiny parts even are protected. In a village 15 km from Taiping, a part is made accessible.
The local bus was a huge contrast with the long distance bus from Ipoh. Rattling and shaking it roared along, with me not fitting in the seat. It should be a 30 minute ride, but it took a bit more as the bus conductor forgot to tell us where to get off. So we rode along all the way into the village and back to the entrance again. Tarmac roads, parking lots and wooden houses had taken up quite a large area, but there were also a number of wooden walkways, elevated a meter above the muddy ground, deep into the forest. There seemed to be no one else, and it was a bit spooky finding our way in the semi-dark under the tall trees. The trees were standing in a sort of mud plain with the roots sticking out like reversed branches to balance the tree.  Some spots saw more daylight and they were covered with bush and ferns. We saw monkeys, birds (prossibly an eagle) and a 50 cm lizard. Beautiful!

We walked on to the village. Houses here looked poorer, people rode bicycles and bikes more. Branches of rivers and canals flowed into larger rivers that in turn flowed into the Andaman Sea. We didn't get that far out. We did cross a tall narrow bridge over one of those rivers and saw the shoreline packed with fishing boats.
Penang is the official name for both the island and the state, and is often used for the city Georgetown as well.
Penang was the first British trading post in this part of the world. It has a large historical center, Unesco World Heritage. Part of that are old British colonial buildings. A larger part old Chinese houses, temples and kongsi (clan) houses. In between are mosques and Hindu temples.

A couple of streets make up Little India where Bollywood- and temple music roars from the video shops; the smell of spices and incense floats in the air; shops with stainless steel pans and pots; the liveliness and the colours; women in saris or churidas or jeans with there long black hair let down - something you never see in South India.

And then there are a couple of true backpacker streets. The backpackers however are totally outnumbered by large quantities of Asian tourists. One of the main attractions, and adding to the uniqueness of the town, is the street art. Huge murals and iron wire "cartoons" cheer it all up.

The population itself is mixed again, but the East and South Asians seem to have acquired some of that typical Southeast Asian openness and eternal smile.
Despite the many hotels we had trouble finding a suitable one. We spent the first afternoon and the next morning looking at quite a few. Some just had dorms, some had shared bathrooms, some were dingy, some were full and many were over budget. The very first one we had looked at was a rare mid-range hotel, but a bit too expensive. Later we saw it had a seasonal discount offer on an internet booking site. The next day we went back and asked for that discount at the counter. No, that was not possible. But we were welcome to log into the hotel's wifi and sit in the lobby and make the booking then and there. Backpacking just isn't the same anymore. But we got our room, later moved to an ever better room with balcony and sea view, and are very happy with it!
The first days we just walked around town and took it all in. Since we arrived here the sky has been blue and the sun hot. The sea breeze keeps it all comfortable. 
One trip was to the botanical gardens. They were amazingly beautiful. The gardens itself were very pretty, spacious, light. But the setting is what did it: surrounded by true rainforest, and the highlight was the path that went through that for a bit. Again we were mesmerized by the huge trees, the unusual roots, the parasite plants that let air roots down to the ground, that in turn were used by climbers to get high up near the light.
In George Town there are again lots of restaurants to choose from: vegan Japanese, Chinese, Malay and Indian. One Indian restaurant at first glance looked like South Indian, but had done some interesting fusion: it served mock meat in the North Indian thali and had a buffet near the entrance where you could choose your own side dishes with your rice: d.i.y. thali. Two features typical for the Chinese veg restaurants here. So yes, the cultural groups do mix. Indians eat in the Chinese restaurants and Chinese eat in the Malay restaurants.

One restaurant we saw had a big sign "Dindigul Biriyani". Having lived in and visited Athoor, Dindigul for ten years I could not but take a picture and send it to my friends there. They put the picture on Facebook with the question "who knows where this is". Within minutes Vinodh, a mutual friend of ours replied: "this is in Penang, my cousin runs a restaurant there".
I met Vinodh years ago when a film crew was recording English lessons given by his sister-in-law for a dvd for her language school. They had hired the resort for the weekend and it was a lot of fun. Vinodh was there just to watch. We chatted, he lent me a book. He runs a tool shop in Dindigul town where I have often been.

Of course we went to eat at the restaurant and say hello to his cousin. At first he was a bit shy and distant, but as can happen with South Indians, after a while things warmed up and we chatted away happily. The restaurant was opened a year ago by a jewelry merchant across the street who wanted to diversify. Not only the cousin, but also the cashier and the cook, actually all eight staff members were imported directly from Dindigul to run the restaurant. It had a modern look and the food was pretty good indeed.
We even had the manager of our hotel go and eat there...
To Thailand
Our plan is to travel to Bangkok overland.  For me that is the third attempt to do so. The first two times I spent too much time on Bali / Sumatra and ended up taking a flight / night train from Penang to Bangkok. Third time lucky?
As you get only 15 days when you enter Thailand overland, we needed a visa. So we went to the Thai consulate. The application itself was a breeze and we got the visa the next day without further ado. What made it complicated were the Penang city buses that ran infrequent and with the most silly loops and detours in the route.
That's how two weeks in Penang passed. We are getting quite settled. Meanwhile E. has made a start writing her book. Let's wait and see how things go, and whether we will actually make it overland...

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