updated 1 February 2000

Where was b? 1999

Where's b?


- The land where the winds meet
Malaysian Flag

-----------Under Construction! -----------

17-20 September -- Georgetown, Penang
First Impression
Before giving a first impression I should mention factors conditioning my expectations.Primarily, I have registered information from other travelers that Malaysia is more expensive and developed than Thailand.Accordingly, I was expecting to see a visually more developed place. What I've seen instead is an urban ghetto: buildings falling into disrepair, closed stores with empty display cases, open sewers running along the streets, less traffic. There are signs of more affluence such as more cell phones and current American pop music on the stereos. But the urban landscape most closely resembles an older rundown part of town in America. Georgetown has much European architecture so it looks more like a run down part of New Orleans. In fact, LouisArmstrong is singing over the stereo where I sit and type this. Wait a minute! It sounds like Kenny G. is playing along with the recording- Criminal! Like I said, contemporary American music.

Most surprising, however, has been the ethnic diversity of people. It's shocking actually. I keep looking for ethnic Malays, and seeing Indians and Chinese. The Chinese look so white down here in the tropics compared to the Brown Indians.English is printed and spoken everywhere. Chinese is printed and spoken everywhere. Malay seems to have adopted the Latinalphabet. Not so much Hindi in print. I expected this from Singapore, but I didn't realize this was the case up here in Penang. This diversity may well be unique to this area. Anyway, its tropical and with this mixture of people and crumbling Euro architecture it's very funky indeed. Getting food is going to be a helluva lot easier. In fact, I was reminded that I do like Japanese, and Thai, and Chinese food, and Middle Eastern food, but Indian, Indian food is far and away the pinnacle of vegetarian cuisine. I don't care how runny my stool may get!

I rode into town with 4 other men including the driver. The two passenger in back with me were speaking a funky kind of English when I got in. I asked them where they were from. They said Malaysia. I said, why are you speaking English? They paused and the younger guy said, "everything's mixed up in Malaysia." I knew it was a British colony, but hell, I didn't hear the Chinese speaking English in Hong Kong, nor did the natives in Brazil freely speak English. I'm figuring out these guys had to because the Chinese had to talk to the Indians. I got a good intro to Malaysia in the mini bus. The driver was darkest. Some kind of ethnic Malaysian, he spoke no English. The guy next to him looked Chinese, he spoke English and Malay. The oldest guy was fromSarawak, he looked to have some English blood in him, he spoke English and had trouble speaking to the Malay guy. The other guy may have been Indian, he spoke English. I carried in a carton of cigarettes for the guy from Sarawak, home of the legendary head hunters. I mentioned Taiwan situation. He said that Taiwan was aprovince of China and other people should not interfere.

---20 September---
I have been here four days and still like the place as much as I did upon first arriving.There are several reasons this is one of my favorite places in Asia.First of all is the cultural and ethnic diversity. There are places in the US where lots of different people live and retain some of their ethnic identity. But this place is much funkier. Apart from a few European and American tourists there are three major groups here- Indian, Chinese, and Malay. In what proportions they are represented I don't know. I feel like I see more Indians and Chinese than Malay.You can walk a few paces along a single street and see Indians eating rice and curry with their right hands from a banana leaf, Chinese eating noodles from a bowl with chopsticks, and Malay eating Thai food with metal spoons and forks.The Malay women walk by covered from head to toe as befitting their Muslim religion. The older Indian women wear a colorful sari with a red dot between their eyes. The Chinese are mostly western in their dress.

The people also seem to be friendlier. I suspect this may have something to do with their needing to get along with each other. Another benefit of the diversity is the great drop in the stare factor; they don't spend as much time looking at foreigners as they do in other places. Lastly, practically everyone speaks adequate English so it's easy to talk with everyone.

You literally walk down one street and encounter in succession: A yellow Islamic mosque, with it's domes and minaret; a Hindu temple covered with colorful gods; a red Buddhist temple ever-surrounded by incense; and a white Anglican church, its cross thrusting above the palm trees.If the Christian presence is most subdued then the Chinese religion is the most conspicuous. There are shops that make and sell incense sticks and ship them around the world. There are many shops selling religious items for the Chinese and also shops selling Hindu goods for the Indians.

Last night I saw some kind of Chinese play with traditional costumes and music. I confirmed mysuspicion with a Chinese incense manufacturer that there was more Chinese religion in Penang than in China.The Indian community is replete with a few gray-haired, skin and bone ascetic, beggars. I suppose they are below the trickshaw drivers on the Indian social scale. The trickshaw drivers not only make a living with their two wheeled carriages propelled by an adapted bicycle, they have a place to get drunk and pass out.

Apart from being spiritual luminaries the Indians and Chinese are culinary giants as well.Likewise the food in Penang is excellent. Roti (Indian bread) baked in a stone oven served up with some fresh curry, for example.

As if all this weren't enough, you are surrounded with real architecture. What is "real" architecture? Architecture that cares about aesthetics. Unlike the concrete and aluminum monstrosities that clog the arteries of the modern world. Penang has street after street of cool old two story building with tasteful decorative flourishes and motifs. I don't know who built it, but you have excellent architecture everywhere you look.It's falling apart, but the decay adds an appropriate ambiance to this tropical island. (The only other place with notable architecture in Asia has been Japan, most notably Kyoto and the preserved sections of Takayama.)

21-22 September 1999 -- Ipoh (Perak)

I've had excellent luck in Ipoh. I arrived and took a taxi to the YMCA - "its fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A-A." The Indian cab driver tried his best to be my personal driver for the following day, but to no avail. The rate was 17 ringget for a dorm bed. Having paid 8 rmd the previous nights I left to search for a cheaper option. I walked to an Indian restaurant and asked if they could direct me to a cheap room. A guy with a better command of English motioned me into the restaurant. He was Malay, sitting with a Chinese/Malay guy. They offered to take me where I wanted to go. I looked at the Indianrestaurateur, he read my mind and nodded to indicate that these guys were on the level.

We checked a price at one hotel and I decided that the "Y" was my best bet. They helpful guys went their own way and I mine. It rained and I had a look around town. Same nice, British influenced architecture.

Today I took a bus to the royal village of Kuala Kangsgar, the home of the Sultan of Perak. I was walking uphill along the road past manicured lawns and hedges in the vicinity of the Sultan's palace when a car stopped and the Chinese/Malay guy from the previous day popped out of the car, "Hey friend! Remember us! Come with us!" Running into these guys in a small town 45 minutes away from Ipoh was indeed an unusual coincidence.

They had another business partner in the car, a Malay guy. Their business is construction. He had a proposal of some kind to build 33,000 units at $10,000 a unit in earthquake torn Turkey. It sounds a bit iffy, but if it works out they will be able to retire in comfort.

It was great luck to run into these guys again because it would have been very tiring and difficult to cover the ground that we were able to cover with ease. We saw the state mosque, sporting Italian marble, and were able to glimpse the Sultan's palace from afar. We visited the interesting royal museum constructed without the use of nails. The yellow and black walls are made with twisted bamboo. The exhibits are mostly black and white photos. I did learn that in addition to being the figure head of (the nation?) the Sultan is also president of a field hockey club. He's also a descent golfer. As somememorabilia relating to these facts were proudly displayed.

We drove to Taiping to the first museum in Malaysia. It was established by the British and now contained displays of colonial eraartifacts and descriptions of resistance to British rule. The museum was pretty well worn and primitive. It seems that for some reason the snazziest museums in Asia are in South Korea.

We drove back to Ipoh and had a nice lunch along the road. It turns out that Malay food is quite good, and the Malay people also eat with their hands. We drove out to see Kellie's Castle. I wasn't able to get the full story on these oddity in the Malaysian countryside. It was fun to explore the ruins of this unfinished (or destroyed ?) castle. It was built by a British man named William Kellie less than a hundred years ago. Some locals like to climb up and take a smoke on a ledge overlooking the muddy river running through this valley.

In case you're wondering what kind of work these three men were doing, it was similar to the kind of work I've seen other men do in Asia.Basically a kind of hunting while their women stay at home or at the office working. The only constructive thing I noticed was stopping to inquire at this home about the car park out front. It was the same model as Mr. Zul's car and it was apparently beingcannibalized for parts. The woman asked 700 rmb for the part Mr. Zul wanted. He would think about it.

Robert, the Chinese guy agreed to take me around Ipoh at night. Mr. Zul was Malay, and therefore Muslim, and therefore a non drinker, and therefore not a big night-lifer, and therefore Robert made plans with me.He met me around 9pm. I had just picked up some Indian food to go. I had no utensils so I tried to eat the rice with my hands, native-style. I guess I succeeded as I drew no reaction from the people around.

Robert essentially drove me around town so that I could see where people were going out. He explained that people drank and eventually would start fighting and then the police would come and take some people to jail. Every other night he estimated.

We drove to a Malay friend's house where he delivered a heavy copper ring, some kind of antiquity from Sabah (an Island part of Malaysia). He said it was 100,000 years old (in Chinese English)which means pretty old in English English. I got the sense that Malaysia was basically segregated into neighborhoods where one ethnic group predominated. The Chinese area was easy to spot because of the red glow of lights at their alters which shone through the curtains.

We ended up buying beers and taking them to a widow's house to drink. I suspect some widows make good company for married men and vice versa. I had some real mooncake with the duck eggs in it. I don't know how old the duck eggs where but they were dusty. The Chinese like really old eggs. That's one of their deals.

Robert and Mr. Zul enjoyed the prestige of hanging out with a representative of the new celestial kingdom. They also enjoy considering the possibility of visiting and working in the U.S. or setting up a joint venture company.

23-25 September 1999 -- Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
Today I arrived in the Cameron Highlands after a reasonably sane bus ride up mountain road with plenty of 180 degree switchbacks. This area has the distinction of having a cool temperature and indeed it has.It also gets a good deal of rain. Otherwise a very nice location here on an agricultural plateau in the mountains of central Malaysia.

25 September
Besides walking through the surrounding jungle in the comfort of the highland temperature, one of the featured attractions is a visit to one of the tea plantation.Yesterday I visited Boh Tea Plantation. The plantation was established by English entrepreneurs in a rolling valley in this high plateau. The jungle had been cleared and the rolling hills and valleys were carpeted with tea plants. The plants can live up to 100 years and they grow like a hedge. The hedge is kept flat so there is a remarkableevenness to the green that covers this scenic stretch of land in the mountains. Indians experienced in tea agriculture were brought from the British colony in India to plant and work this plantation less than 100 years ago. Their descendents live in raised wooden houses painted blue with peeling paint. A colorful Hindu temple and a small grocery store complete the settlement. On the road above sits the relatively small tea processing plant.

Free tours of the plant are offered. The processing is utterly simple, complicated only by the namesattached to it such as fermentation, oxidization etc. The green leaves are picked, more or less by hand it seems. The bags are trucked to the plant where they areunloaded onto a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt takes the leaves up to aerated bins where they sit for some hours to ferment. You can see the pesticide resistant bugs clinging to the leaves, about to become part of the packaged tea along with their concentrated store of toxins. Fermentation involves letting the leaves sit around and turn brown, thus yielding a black tea. Green tea skips the fermentation process and is therefore green, not black. Oolong tea is partially fermented and therefore brown rather than black or green. Machines convey, smash, dry and separate the leaves. Workers in raggedy clothing make sure things go smoothly. And thus a small tea empire is built no doubt bringing huge returns to a handful of Englishmen. While the Indian workers are content with a steady job, modest income and housing and a lifetime supply of tea.

I hitched down from the plantation and was picked up by two Indians from Kuala Lumpur (K.L.). They worked at a chemical plant supply chemicals forindustrial, agricultural, and municipal pursuits. They seemed pleased to have an American to show around and brought me to the Buddhist and Hindu temples. Muni, the driver, tried to describe the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism. Heprimarily stressed that Buddhists were charitable and Hindus were not. He tried to explain that Hindus were moreconcerned about their metaphysical development which brought them to ignore physical realities like the poor. He was trying to explain poverty in India. But the bottom line is that Indians in Malaysia are a heck ofa lot better off economically and educationally than their families they left behind. The same is true for the Chinese.

26-28 September 1999 -- Kuala Lumpur
K.L., the tin rush town exactly contemporary with the gold rush town of San Francisco. The British made it the capital of a new and loose federation of Malay states in 1880.It remained capital of the new Malaysia proclaimed in the 1957. It's now the center of commerce and proud home of the world's tallestbuilding(s) and the 4th tallest telecommunications tower.

I visited both of these landmarks today. I took the 58 second elevator ride up to the top of the Menara Kuala Lumpur(K.L. Tower) for 8rmb and had a look at the lights of the city. I also was able to confirm what what was apparent on the ground- that the streets are a complete maze. Not only do the streets run in no regular pattern, a street of a certain name can run perpendicular to itself. If that doesn't make sense then you've understood.

The Petronas Twin Towers figured in the recent Sean Connery movie "Entrapment." I think the Prime Minister of Malaysia must have seen that movie and, like most Asians, perceived it as an insiders expose of America. Without referencing the movie he made a speech warning the population of neo-colonialism by computer. He suggested that certain neo-imperialists had triggered the Asian financial crisis by tampering with computer data via the internet. If you think I'm making that up, you don't understand Asian politics.

I also took a bus out to the Batu Caves. The huge main cavern has been transformed into a Hindu temple. 200-300 concrete steps lead up to the mouth of the largest cave. The floor of the cave has been paved to resemble a parking lot which cars cannot reach. There are Hindu gods placed in some of the natural grottos. Most people tend to fixate on the small population ofmonkeys that call the cave home. There's also a rooster, a cat and hundreds of pigeons. The pigeons compete with themonkeys for peanuts. The monkeys usually win. Watching these monkeys a critical observer will notice that only on a very good day do humans show more intelligence.

The caves are most famous for a Hindu festival called Thaipusam which happens in January/February. Postcards of self mutilation revealed that the festival closely resembles the Buddhist Vegetarian Festival of Phuket, Trang and Hat Yai, in Thailand. When I questioned an Indian about this he said that everything came from India. He must have been referring to Buddhism (from the Indian Prince) and its iconography (Hindu) and in this case a festival. I had read that the Thai festival was Indian in origin, but I read elsewhere that it was from Southern China. I suspect there is truth in both accounts, but India must be the original source of this graphic festival.
As an aside, travelers in search of gay Indian friends should try the stalls selling flower necklaces and incense as offerings to the gods. There seemed to be a small community forming at the Batu Caves.Perhaps they are attracted to the god of the cave who represents youth, beauty and valor. Or perhaps they like the technicolor art cave showcasing an array of Hindu gods including several statues of boys that might be mistaken for girls. Only here do you get the inside story.

I wound up the day an an internet "cafe." The business was owned and operated by a 55 year old Malay (and therefore Muslim) woman. She looked to be about 70. Her husband had left her for another woman. I suspect it had something to do with her will and intelligence that was difficult for a Muslim man to handle. She complained that her son's had squandered her money and had never thanked her for her financial assistance. She was trying to figure a way around the Islamic law that would transfer her estate to her sons when she died. She did not trust them with her estate and wanted to leave it to a westerner. She seemed very much a frustrated product of an Islamic system. I learned from her that a small piece of commercial property in a department store ran for 600 RM per month, that's less than $200 US.

28 September
The National Museum and National History Museum
Today I visited two of the state museums, both of which were average developing nation sort of productions. The National Museum focused on his majesty the current King, but his five year reign ended a few days ago when a new Sultan was selected for the post. The exhibit covered the Sultan of Perak and once again had photos of he and his wife playing golf. Also photos of the royal family visiting educational institutions and looking at computers. There was a wing dedicated to weapons and musical instruments. Including large drums which were the favored instruments for welcoming home headhunters with their new trophies. There was an exhibit on the animals of the region. I'd like to see a slow loris in the wild. And there was a folk culture exhibit featuring shadow play figures from various Asian countries.

The History Museum started with geology and moved into the stone age, and on to theNeolithic, then the Sri Vijaya kingdom (600-1400 or so). Then the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese took turns influencing the region until independence was declared in 1957. Of interest to me was the display of the Commonwealth countries who had all won independence fromBritain. Except Northern Ireland.

29 September- 1 October 1999 -- Melaka
Mention the name "Melaka" to any Malaysian and they will say, "Melaka, Historical."Melaka is indeed the most historical city of Malaysia. The story of Melaka (sometimes Malacca), pronounced like the Greek curse, begins with its founding by kingdomless prince Paremswara around 1400 as a port in the protected straits between peninsular Malaysia and Sumatera (Sumatra). The straits of Melaka where destined for trouble or glory as they occupied the best route between East Asia and India/Europe. Here the monsoons drew ships from East and West.

The oldest church is Malaysia was built here by the Portuguese in 1521 (or so). It would predate Malaysia's oldest existing mosque, also in Melaka, by some 200 years. The Catholic church to the Virgin turned into a Protestant Church to St. Paul when control of Melaka passed from the Portugese to the Dutch. The Dutch left behind some old buildings as well including the governor's house of 1641 and the Christ Church from the 1740s. Unfortunately the old historic area is plagued with traffic and exhaust so bad that not only did it give me a sore throat, but made my eyes sting.

Coffee is widely available and cheap in Malaysia. Local coffee is dark and tastey. Coffee beans are not roasted; they are sauteed with margarine(butter) and sugar until nice and dark. The flavor is rich and smooth. There is a coffee house institution in Malaysia. You can spot a traditional coffee house by its round marble table tops. They serve iced and hot teas and coffee's. Tea with (English/Indian) and without (Chinese) milk. These coffee houses are often associated with a food vendor/hawker who sets up on the street/sidewalk out front. My prefered breakfast is at a coffee shop associated with an Indian hawker- roti (Indian bread) chanai (with curry) and good kopi.

Travellers to Asia often look in vain for signs of a recession. In Japan, business and consumption seems to go on as usual. Korea and Thailand and Malaysia all seem to be rolling along just fine. One of the few places one can see signs of the economic downturn are in huge building projects complete, but empty. On St.Paul's hill in Melaka there is a a nice view of the straits of Melaka, and a most conspicuous group of long 2 or 3 story buildings. There are dozens of huge new buildings, perhaps on or near land reclaimed from the sea. They stand complete, but unfurnished and empty. Apparently there is much empty office space in Thailand as well.
Tonight I walked by a new shopping complex with a fellow from Guyana in the Caribbean. He was looking for signs of recession as well. It was not easy to see at this new mall with landscaped gardens and fountains amongst a busy parking lot. (A Chinese couple passed, the man with his hand firmly on the rear of his mini-skirted companion. Is this an Islamic country?) Economic stress was notimmediately apparent but we could easily agree that there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor and that the gap was growing. This gap in so-called developing countries is huge.

Melaka would be a great place to stroll past old buildings, antique shops, and temples if not for the unending flow of traffic. Most of the streets are one-way. And you can walk all day it seems and not come across a single traffic light. Because the scarcity of traffic lights there is hardly a break in the flow of traffic. You can imagine how difficult it can be cross the street. I seem to be better at crossing than the natives. You can stand on a corner all day waiting for a break, or you can just weave on through.

Fast Food
If you are wondering what happened to A&W Root Beer restaurants, they've moved to Malaysia. I saw half a dozen or so in Kuala Lumpur and I've seen one or two in Melaka.
On a related note, 7-11 has also moved in to conquer the East. America's first convenience store out of Dallas, Texas was purchased by the Japanese (so I've heard) and though they are hard to find stateside the green, orange and red stores are ubiquitous throughout much of Asia. In Japan 7-11 stocks Japanese goods such as onigiri (rice "balls" stuffed with tuna, chicken, pickles etc. That is not a very appetizing description, but they are quitetasty.) oden (stewed diakon radish, fish products etc.) and soba (cold buckwheat noodles.). In Thailand you can buy Dunkin' Donut products at the local 7-11. In Malaysia you can buy a curry pie. And, of course, Big Gulps and the slurpee.

Who was the first to circumnavigate the Earth?
Did you say Ferdinand Magellan?
Here's the story- and no this is not part of the tourist literature- only here do you get the real story!
In the beginning (16th Century) the Pope told the Spanish to sail West and the Portuguese to sail East. And so it was done. Ferdinand sailed to the famous port city of Malacca in what is now Malaysia. In Sumatra he purchased the services of a slave by the name of Enrique. Ferdinand sailed with Enrique back to Portugal. He switched allegiance to the Spanish and thenceforth set sail for the West under the Spanish flag, Enrique in tow. Ferdinand passed the Southern tip of South America and across the vast Pacific Ocean to thePhilippines. The Pacific is so vast that the crew was long without female companionship when they landed in thePhilippines. The crew proceeded to convert the heathens to Christianity while they ravished the local talent. The locals didn't take kindly to this and responded by killing off as much of the Spanish as they could, including Ferdinand Magellan. Ferdinand never completed his voyage around the globe. It was his slave, Enrique, who escaped thePhilippines with the remainder of the Spanish and returned to his home in the straits of Malacca. Thus an ethnic Malay known as Enrique was the first individual to circumnavigate the planet. Ferdinand's crew completed the voyage back to Spain where they were given a well earned reception, but credit that was due a Malay slave.
(If that story's not true, at least it's possible.)

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