14 August 2000
17 June 2000 -- Singapore to Malaysia on the Night Train
I had left Indonesia so that Jamie and I could travel together during her holiday. I wanted her to get out of the concrete police state of Singapore and see some of the neighborhood. This took us to Malaysia for about two weeks. We'd wanted to take a train to Taman Negara National Park in the middle of peninsular Malaysia. The train schedule, however, was inconvenient so we decided to stay on the train and go up to the Northeastern corner of Malaysia and hop over to the Perhentian Islands. I'd heard several travelers rave about this island paradise so I wanted to have a look to see for myself.
It being b's birthday we took a couple of bottles of beer on the train. An Indian man opened the first one for me with his lighter. I used the same technique to get the second one open. I found an English couple that was also going to the Perhentian Islands. They were planning to go to Khota Baru first, but I explained our route to them which was quicker and cheaper. They agreed to disembark with us at Kuala Krai and share a cab from there to Kuala Besut. I'd gotten this itinerary from the train station in Singapore; that was no simple task.
Jamie had gotten her visa from the Malaysian embassy. I didn't need one. As far as I know, US citizens in Asia only need pre-arranged visa's for China and India (I believe Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, now issue them on arrival). We had a comfortable train ride across Malaysia in our upper berths.
18 June -- Kuala Krai to Kuala Besut to Pulau Perhentian Kecil
We made all of our travel connections with ease and perfect timing. It didn't hurt that I could speak Malaysian to the cab driver. He didn't speak much English. The Malaysian language is essentially the same as Bhahasa Indonesia which I picked up in Indonesia. We arrived in Kuala Besut just in time to catch an early morning boat over to the Perhentian Islands. The boat was full of young Europeans on holiday. I borrowed someone's lonely planet guidebook and decided we'd go to Long Beach on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. It turned out that everyone else on the boat was headed there as well. No doubt they were all using the same guide. We skirted around the green islands, ringed with white sandy beaches naturally set off by gray boulders. The water was clear and blue-green.
As we approached Long Beach we were surrounded by half a dozen motorized canoe-like boats. It looked like an orchestrated pirate attack. It was in fact a kind of highway robbery. We were told to hop into one of those boats to get on in to the beach. That part of the journey however wasn't included in the price of the RM15 ticket it would cost us an extra ringet (or was it 2?). One British girl spoke for us budget travelers, "We bought tickets to the island; were we meant to swim?" It was useless, but the budget travler is ever on the lookout for fleecing and many become downright hostile in their relations with locals. That means they've been ripped off a few dozens times and are aware of at least a few of them. Their aggressive stance is meant to prevent it from happening again. But the only successful strategy is to know the local market prices, the tourist prices, and a little language.
An island with no boat dock
We took off our shoes and carried them as we waded to shore with our luggage. While this sounds inconvenient this lack of a boat dock is one of the key charms that has helped keep a check on development (no roads, cars, motorbikes...) It's also acts as a elemental baptism. What more appropriate way to arrive on a tropical island than with wet and sandy bare feet?
$5 Bungalow on the cliff overlooking Coral Bay
It was a clear hot day. It was real hot and the beach and the beachfront restaurants were busy with bronze bodies. Our first task along with all the other new comers arriving from the mainland was to find a bungalow of our own. This turned out to be no easy task. After a good deal of asking and searching I turned up only one bungalow that was in our budget. It was at the very end of the beach and it was dilapidated and unkept. Others from our boat were pacing up and down the hot beach with their packs. I knew the drill however and had Jamie sit in the shade sipping some fresh fruit juice and watching our packs while I walked down the beach. I noticed a sign for "Coral Bay." I asked how far it was and was told it was about 10 minutes through the jungle. We left our packs at the restaurant and took the trail through the jungle to Coral Bay. We were greeted by several huge iguanas that noisily scampered off as we approached. We were very lucky to find one available bungalow up on the cliff overlooking the Bay. It was small new and clean with fan and electricity available from 6pm to 6am. Shared showers and toilets were a short hike away. The place was a good value for RM20 (about $5).
18-20 June -- Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia
We spent three nights in our bungalow above Coral Bay. Just behind our bungalow was a trail leading down to a more secluded string of beach inlets. This also turned out to be a prime spot for viewing the sunset. The beaches here were not so good for swimming however because (as the name of the bay suggests) there was too much coral. That also means that the reef has not been destroyed, but left to grown in the shallow waters near the shore where small fish like to go.
Beach side Bar-b-ques and typhoons
Almost all of the restaurants on the island offer a dinner bar-b-q special. For RM6-8 ($2) you get grilled fish or chicken, half of a baked potato or rice, and a small salad and some fruit. As you walk along the beach at dusk, tables are set out on the beach with candles and menu's advertise variations on the bar-b-que theme. We tried two of these bar-b-ques and neither one was particularly good. Our first night we decided to try the bar-b-qued baracuda. We sat down to dinner at our table on the sand which was leaning slightly. We were about halfway through our meal when a regular typhoon blew in. Plates in hand we all ran for cover inside the "restaurant." Boys working at the restaurant brought in the tables one at a time. We sat down again and finished the meal which slowly got wet along with us as the wind and rain raged around us. When we finished eating we stood up near the center of the restaurant trying to keep warm and dry. Jamie said she'd never been in a storm like that.
Speaking of firsts, the storm was one of several for Jamie. She hadn't traveled to an island so far from the mainland, nor had she been surrounded by so many Western people. Practically all of the travelers and tourists were white people and a good percentage of the workers on the island were anglo-saxons as well. Some of these Westerners had opened up restaurants or dive shops. Others were backpackers working for little more than room and board which in a typically ironic fashion makes these first world Western people cheaper labor than the Indigenous Malays.
Our first full day we set out through the jungle along the coast in search of the fishing village, hoping to catch a glimpse of the authentic island life. We experienced the hot and humid coastal jungle (another first for Jamie), but we set out too late and didn't make it to the fishing village. We were only joined on the trail by insects and reptiles and birds. At times we were climbing a dirt path under trees and vines, at times we were rambling on boulders along the shore. We found a deserted beach and took a swim. It would be getting dark soon so we decided to turn back. We realized how refreshing our swim was after we got back into the steamy jungle. We back-tracked and stopped in at a remote lodge that occupied one of the beaches along the trail. There were two couples staying there and one of the lady helped us make some tea. We all had little else to do except watch the day get late and give a 6 year old girl some English practice as she and her brother played with some kittens. I asked her how old her sister was and she said, "He's not my sister he's my brother!" He must have been 3 or 4 and I obviously wasn't the first to mistake him for a girl. I wondered if the locals ate cat meat. The Australian didn't know, but he said that most of the kittens were eaten by the local iguanas. Jamie assured me that cat meat wasn't very good. We agreed the islanders probably had enough fish.
Black Market Beer and Fire Water and Muslim Adat
One night we crossed through the jungle to try the restaurants on Long Beach. The restaurants were all doing a booming business. The restaurant we settled on had run out of chairs so we sat on the beach on mats set at a low table. The food took a long time to come so we had time to have a drink or two. In observance of Islamic law, however, none of the restaurants on the island served alcohol. That didn't stop enterprising folks from dragging icechests on the beach full of beer cans and sacks full of bottles of monkey Juice, the local firewater. We tried the monkey juice. It mixed well with coke, but it ruined the fresh fruit juice. There were two alcohol hawkers on the beach. One was a Chinese woman from Malaysia; The other was a Malay guy. The Muslim authorities apparently took a stroll down the beach and sent the Malay guy running. The Chinese lady stood her ground because Muslim adat (tradition/law) didn't apply to her. That's the way Malaysia works. There is one law for Muslims (Malays) and another law for the Indians and Chinese. Indians make up about 10% of the population and ethnic Chinese over 30%. Almost all of the Chinese and Indians were brought to Malaysia by the British to help build their empire. We had a talk with the Chinese woman. She had brown skin and Jamie was suprised to learn that she was Chinese and could speak Mandarin. The woman told Jamie she'd get brown if she stayed in the sun long enough. Have a look at the Japanese soccer team if you don't believe it.
Boat dives were being offered for RM100 (under $30). They included all equipment and transportation. The equipment was all in good condition, the guides weren't the greatest, but the diving was excelent. The dives were shallow at 30 to 50 ft. So we were able to stay under for almost an hour and had plenty of air left. Just as nice as the diving was the boat ride around the islands. The water was beautiful and the islands almost pristine (esp. compared to Thailand). There were large schools of fish, including a school of baracudas, a giant sea turtle, and all sorts of tropical fish and corals. The coral gardens seemed more extensive than usual. Apparently these reefs are in better shape than others. The water was warm and seas were fairly calm. We fought a current on one dive, but not for long. After one of the dives we pulled into a cove where there was a fresh water stream pouring into the sea. It was colder than the sea water but good for washing. Another group of divers were having some honey dew melon. They handed our small group their extra slices.
On the Road to Ghettodom
Hordes of backpackers have "discovered" the Perhentian Islands. Thailand has plenty of islands with beautiful water, good food and cheap accomodations. Maylaysia has some other islands developed for tourism like Lankawi and Tiomam. What has drawn backpackers to the Perhentians is their relative lack of development. The popularity of the island is quickly becoming its undoing. The islands are still lovely, but I'm sure they were more lovely 1 year ago and still lovlier 5 years ago. This profitable trend will no doubt continue. Not only will jungle be cleared, landfills dug, and water polluted but the development will be in a typically haphazard way that turns the place into a backpacker ghetto. A path of development happily repeated all over Southeast Asia.
Leaving the Island
We arranged to leave after my second dive at 2:00 pm on 21 June. I had asked a couple of locals about this and they said there would be a boat leaving from the big island at that time. The dive shop arranged for complimentary transportation to the big island. We had time to eat lunch so we walked up to one of the two resorts there and ate lunch. Just before 2pm we walked back down to the pier and waited for the boat. I told Jamie that I wouldn't be suprised if there was no 2pm boat. Sure enough, there wasn't. I went to inquire at the front desk of the nearest resort. We had a round trip ticket and on the back was printed the daily departure times 9, 11 and 2. The lady at the desk said that the company had called 15 minutes ago and asked if anyone was at the pier and she said no. She called the company, but it was too late, they weren't coming. There would be a speed boat leaving at 4pm. We made the best of the two our delay and tried to enjoy the view of the beach.
21-22 June -- Kota Baru
We had to pay an extra RM10 for the speed boat to Kuala Besut. On the boat was an English couple that was headed the same place we were, Khota Baru. The bus service to there was vey inconvenient and we'd been advised to take a taxi there. We were lucky again to find a couple to split the cab fare with us.
We were dropped off at one of the bus stations and the cab driver indicated the direction in which we could find budget hotels. Someone approached us and handed us a flyer for the KB Guesthouse. He had doubles for RM15 ($4) cofee, tea, and toast included. We had a look at it was fine for us. We were just in time to walk down to the night market and try some famous Malay cusine.
Kota Baru - The Heart of Malay culture
Kota Baru is the capital of Trengganu province. Trengganu is in the Northeast corner of Malaysia. It was one of the last places to be brought under British rule and therefore it shows less British influence than other places. It has a Malay and therefore Muslim majority and is said to be the most conservative state in Malaysia. We found evidence of this right away at the night market.
The Night Market
The Night Market sets up in a large concrete square next about 1 minute from the door of our guesthouse. There is a small branch of the night market selling batik sarongs, shoes, and other things, but the central market is nothing but prepared food. When we arrived I asked about a dish that had been recommended to us. The man I asked pointed to a nearby food stall. He said it was "paling bagus" (the best). He also told us we would have to wait an hour because the shops were all closing in observance of the 7 o'clock prayer. I thought that maybe only a few stalls would close, but sure enough, the night market cleared out and we had no choice, but to kill some time and wait for the prayer to end.
While we waited for the market to re-open we had a donut from a nearby bakery to tied us over. The food in the market was good, but it wasn't as impressive as Thailand or Indonesia.
There were certainly more ethnic Malay people around than any other place I had been in Malaysia. There were also many more women wearing traditional batik clothing with their heads covered. In contrast to this conservativism the women prefer very bright colors- pink, yellow, blue, orange, green every color was represented in all kinds of patterns.
Kota Baru was hot and it walking around in the afternoon sun wore us down. We took a bus out to see the village life and village crafts, in particular we wanted to see the traditional kite-making. We got off at a place that advertised traditional crafts. We were the only travellers about but the local villagers weren't shocked to see us. We looked around at a crafts/ souvenir shop. We watched the guy in their making a batik painting. We walked around. We watched some boys playing a wooden board game. We found a batik factory that was just closing. We had a look at some of the intrically drawn patterns of wax on silk waiting to be dyed. We looked at some of the specimens in the gallery. Apparently there was a market for name brand silks. The dying was done in this village, but the silk was embroidered with names like Liz Claiborne.
We walked around traditional wooden houses, raised to keep clear of flood waters. All with a roomy porch for resting in the open breeze. There were fruit trees and coconut palms. There was one yard with a dozen or more bird cages raised on poles 20 to 30 feet above the ground. Jamie's professor was interested in Malay people and she had seen this before in a photo or painting. It was new to me.
The kampung (village) reminded me of Indonesia. It was the first real kampung life I had seen in Malaysia. This countryside evidently was the heart of Malay culture. It was so hot we decided to hitch a ride we got a ride immediately, but we only took it a few minutes down the road. The driver spoke English and perhaps wanted a chance to practice. We were looking for a kite-making place. We stopped where there was a sign, but the place was closed. A man spotted us and told us that there was another kite shop just down the road. He invited us to sit down with him at the local tea stall. He had an ice tea and we had hot tea. He spoke a few words of English and I spoke a few words of Malay; we mostly spoke Malay. Like the Indonesians he was eager to teach me a new word or two. He insisted on paying for the tea. It was about 10 cents for three teas.
We did find the kite shop just about closing time. We poked around the workshop and guessed how the kites were dyed and put together. It was getting late and we caught the sun setting over the river that flows out to the sea. We hitch-hiked again only because I figured it would be faster than waiting for a bus. We hailed down what turned out to be a kind of mini-van taxi. It cost the same as the bus however and took us right back to the night market. We got there again just as it was closing up for prayer. We had just finishing eating our papaya salad when someone came to tell us to clear out. We were pretty tired and ready to keep off our feet but the seats in the market were off limits until prayer was over.
23-25 June -- Penang (Georgetown)
We took a bus to Penang. When I bought the ticket the man at the counter told me that the bus would leave from that station. Sure enough the bus left from the other station. We had time to take a taxi there and then the bus was almost an hour late.
We were dropped off near the Komtar and we walked 15-20 minutes to Chulia Street. We went to the Oasis just off Chulia Street on Love Lane. An old Chinese house converted into a guesthouse. There are courtyards with fish ponds, a shower with hot water, and reasonably quiet rooms. The manager is a fun guy to talk to and so is his son. This place usually attracts more seasoned travellers who make better than usual conversation on the cushioned chairs out front. The staff know me there and apologized that there wasn't a better room available.
I've written about Penang a couple of times before and won't say much here, but I did revist my friends at the Blue Star Hotel and they said there computers were doing fine. The owner bought me a couple of beers and I played pool with one of the workers.
We had some very tastey food. We went to an upscale Chinese vegetarian joint and I let Jamie order. She ordered a dish that was very popular in Beijing because it was tastey and attractive. They brought it out and it was all wrong. She explained to them the Chinese name and said it should have peanuts and cucumber but they seemed to think their interpretation was perefectly reasonable. It was still pretty good.
Jamie was well impressed with a noodle dish we had at the vegetarian restaurant near the Chinese temple. We both couldn't figure out why such a good and simple dish was so difficult to get in Singapore.
We'd eaten plenty of roti and tosai (South Indian)bread in Singapore, but Jamie hadn't had any nan, North Indian bread baked on the wall of a clay oven. We went to the small Chinese restaurant across from the small mosque where the Indian guy makes nan and tandoori chicken. The chef was glad to see me and happy to have his picture taken with his clay tandoori oven on wheels. He sets up his oven on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant that he has a partnership with. This is a common system in old Penang. Sometimes the restaurant owner only sells drinks and a hawker sets up outside and actually prepares all the food. Hawker stalls are such an institutuion of good food in Penang that the weekly entertainment paper actually has a two page section reviewing hawker stalls complete with small photos of the stall and it's street location (sometimes approximate). If your wondering about sanitation dishes are washed in tubs that sit behind most any hawker stand. One tube of soapy water and one of rinse water. How clean the dishes get depends on how clean that rinse water is.
Hawkers in Singapore
Singapore operates on a similar system, but the hawkers have been taken off their wheels and lodged into concrete food courts known as hawker centers. Hawker centers are ubiquitous in Singapore and many people let the hawkers do their cooking for them.
26 June -- Kuala Lumpur
There's not so much to recommend K.L. but I felt like Jamie should see it since it's a growing capital city near Singapore. I gave Jamie the K.L. in one evening tour. We had a look at the adminstrative buildings outlined in lights at night. We took the elevated train to the Petronas twin towers, the tallest buildings in the world. We walked from there to the fashionable shoping/dining area. We stayed at Anjua guesthouse conveniently located across from the bus station. I'd stayed there before and it was new and the bathrooms were clean and agian, there was hot water.
27-29 June -- Melaka
We went to the Eastern Heritage House and the owner welcomed my business. He took us out for drinks and a few rounds of pool. He's a big drinker and likes to have company. He made small talk about batik painting. His wife is actually pretty good. He runs introductory batik painting courses at his guesthouse. The old house is from his wife's family. She runs another guesthouse in another part of Melaka as well as a new restaurant. He doesn't do a very good job of running the Eastern Heritage unfortunately and it's showing worse for the wear. We spent two nights there before deciding to try our luck someplace else for the third night.
The story of Tony's Guesthouse
I'd spotted Tony's Guesthouse nearby so we decided to give it a try. It was a fantastic find. The room was clean, newly furnished, quiet and had a balcony. There was also a kitchen and hot water. All that for $2 apiece. Tony runs the photocopy place downstairs and told us how he got into the guesthouse business. The Apple guesthouse had closed but Tony kept noticing backpackers coming. They would ask him about he guesthouse and he told them it was closed. The Apple kept getting customers because it was in the lonely planet. Tony decided he'd try to run the place himself. The land lady gave him good deal. It took him a week to clean the place out. He painted and refurnished the place and started waiting for customers. Days passed and no one showed up. Then two girls from New Zealand showed up. They asked if he had any rooms. He said they could have their pick. They asked to have a look and they were pleased with what they saw. He had them sign in and he opened the guestbook to the first page which was completely empty. The girls looked at each other and asked if they were his first guests. He said they were. They said he should give them a discount since they were his first customers. He agreed. They enjoyed their stay and told him that they would help him get guests. They took some flyers he had printed and told him he would get guests. Sure enough guests started rolling in. And people were coming in with his flyers from as far away as Vietnam. I found out that Nicholai had stayed there. He said that many people had found his place after leaving the Eastern Heritage House.
We walked up St. Paul's Hill and had a look at the ruins of the nearly 500 year old church where St. Francis Xavier was temporarily interred. We were in time to catch the sun setting over the sea. We walked down the hill to the last vestiges of the Portuguese fort A Famosa. A single stone gate is all that remains of the once mighty fortress that helped keep Melaka in the hands of the Portuguese and Dutch for 150 years apiece. The British dismantled the fort so as to enhance the stature of Singapore and Penang.
Melaka's Chinatown has impressed me more than any other and I'm happy to say my feelings were shared by Jamie who felt like she was back in China. She saw traditional Chinese things there that were difficult to find in China. There are temples and clan meeting houses, but the real attraction are the large Chinese houses converted into antique shops, hotels and restaurants. The locals are anxious to share their Baba and Nonya heritage with travelers. Baba and Nonya are the respective names given to Chinese men and women born in the straights of Melaka. People who have a mixture of European, Malay and Chinese culture.
A Baba in the flesh
The highlight of our day there was meeting a 5th generation Baba. We spotted him while he was making an offering of incense sticks to the gods at the small shrine mounted outside his door. He looked very Chinese but he wore a Malay sarong. Jamie wanted to take a picture for a possible painting. We walked over to his open door and called in. A huge old painting of Kwam-Im, Budhist goddess of Mercy presided over the front room. He had wooden and marble furniture that Jamie said was only found in museums in China. He had wedding pictures of many generations. Some of the couples were dressed in traditional Chinese costumes, others were dressed in Western-style tuxedos and wedding gowns. He spoke English and Mandarin with us. He was happy to have his picture made, and probably happy to make the acquaintence of a Chinese person from China.
I introduced Jamie to Abdul Rashid. I had met him on my last trip to Melaka. He is an artist from Penang and was asked by the authorities to open up an art gallery/school in Melaka. He was given some old buildings at the back of St Paul's Hill between the cemetery and the courthouse. He remembered me and even remembered the book I was reading when I met him. He had studied in Australia and obviously liked shootin' the bull in English. He extended an open invitation to Jamie to visit and stay there whenever she liked for as long as she liked as long as she would leave some piece of art behind. He currently had a couple of German photographers staying in the unfurnished room next to his.
30 June - 12 July -- Singapore
We could have spent more time in Melaka, but Jamie had to get back to school in Singapore. I spent almost two weeks in Singapore before flying to Tokyo for my summer job. En route to Tokyo I stopped in Bangkok. Why? Because I could. I also needed to change the wardrobe I'd been wearing for 15 months and Bangkok is a better place to do that than Singapore or Tokyo.
13 July -- To Bangkok
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