Thursday, 29 October 2009

After the sticky humidity of Taman Negara’s jungle and it’s leaches, mosquitoes and vipers, our next stop in the Cameron Highlands was a welcome succour. Sitting at altitude which varies between 1300 and 1800 metres the Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s largest hill station. It is not too difficult to see why; the temperature sits between 10 and 21 degrees the whole year around. The air is fresh and cool and the rain comes in torrents that dissipate as promptly as they appear. It is an area of stunning beauty, lush, verdant and fecund. The area takes it’s name from William Cameron, the surveyor who first mapped out the area. Shortly after Cameron’s expedition the Cameron Highlands became home to tea plantations, flower and fruit farms. Swiftly flowing rivers dissect green valleys and dense forests climb mountainous terrain. Wild animals and many reptiles live in these jungles, whilst an abundance of orchards and flowers grow naturally in the area. Culturally, the town is typical of Malaysia with Hindu temples, Mosques and Churches all built at close propinquity. We stayed in Tanah Rata, one of the three main towns in the area. The towns, sadly, are a bit tacky and detract from the beauty of the highlands. Large Tudor style apartment blocks dominate the some of the closer hills like warts on an otherwise unblemished face, whilst slightly further out of town hideous concrete developments blight the hills they are built upon. This is not to say that the area has been irredeemably lost though. A short walk out of town will bring you to the famed jungle trails, whilst along the roadsides strawberry and flower farms abound.

The Cameron Highlands became our home for about five days. We stayed at the ever-hospitable Father’s Guest House, the blackened sign post nailed to a tree trunk displaying a Bob Marley look alike, seemingly crucified on the trunk of a pine tree. Father’s was comfortable, the owners affable and full of honest, practical advice. The restaurant and coffee area was unobtrusively social and the second hand bookshop had Ngugi’s River Between and Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian, the latter of which I am currently battling through, dictionary in one hand and with Wikipedia open to assist me with my rusty history of Antiquity. But back to the Cameron Highlands, we could quite easily have spent a fortnight there. There are multiple walks to do through the jungle, a golf course should you feel so inclined and tours of the tea estates and the Mossy Forest. I spent a bit of time attempting to keep up the cultural front, visiting the Sam Poh Chinese Temple with it’s 10 000 mosaic Buddha tiles and the Hindu Temple in Tanah Rata, where the admonition of the priest for not removing my shoes still rings in my ears. Having upbraided me he promptly disappeared. I had rather hoped he would show me around but it seems this was not to be. After seven months of vaunted temples, churches and museums my usual avidity is beginning to wane, but I continue to make the effort in the knowledge that this time next year I will no longer have these opportunities. And at each turn I am rewarded and I feel enriched by the experience. Of course, being in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is host to all sorts of mouth watering restaurants, serving Dosa’s and Tandori’s and Murtabach and a frighteningly wide selection of roti’s. It is also home to some less appealing establishments, MarryBrown’s for example, serving wretched Halaal deep fried chicken to songs by Nickleback. Or the Lord’s Café, a worn out tea house that sells “Beef Bacon” for breakfast (am I missing something here?), Cheese Cake that actually tastes of cheese. Adorning the walls a picture Mary Magdalene stares gloomily across from her wall at a dirty copy of a Van Gogh opposite, beneath which well thumbed copies of Readers Digest gather dust. Or indeed (and maybe the most detestable and appealing alike) the ineluctable Starbucks Café where locals and foreigners alike, surrounded by the best tea in Malaysia, go in for exorbitantly priced but very mediocre coffee. Alas the forests of Cameron Highlands seem to be under threat. There is rampant logging in areas, whilst poachers make regular forays into the jungle taking with them rare snakes, orchids and natural plants. I found out that one of the men I working at the guesthouse was involved in trafficking snakes to Germany and bitterly regret not having done anything about it. On one hand there is the moral dilemma of knowing that this friendly, smiling man would stand to lose his job and source of income if I had reported him. On the other there is the sheer outrage and contempt I have for the destruction of the forest and the abominable cruelty involved in smuggling animals abroad. I wish the latter sentiment had prevailed.

For our last day in the highlands we went on a tour that included the Boh Tea Estates in the hills North of Birchang. In spite of the rain that was lashing down the beauty of the estates was still very apparent. A rather uninformative tour of the tea curing process was included, but the real value of the trip is just being among the green valleys with neatly clipped tea trees climbing up the undulating valleys. We stocked up on ginger and lime tea bags and then continued on to the strawberry farm for chocolate and strawberry waffles. Had the rain been less persistent and time a little freer, a full day tour of the tea farm would have been very worthwhile. The estate is steeped in the history of J A Russell’s family who set up the enterprise in 1929 and whose progeny are still involved with the estate to the present day. They’re rich now, you better believe it.

The World Heritage site of Malacca with it’s clay red buildings and surprisingly authentic China Town was next. We seem to be on a bit of a roll with guest houses at the moment and our accommodation in Malacca is without doubt the best place that we have stayed in so far. It is spacious, clean, comfortable and welcoming. The owners, Raymond and Mani, are supremely friendly and refreshingly interested in getting to know the people that stay with them. It was down to their superb guesthouse and unrivalled hospitality that we ended up changing our stay in Malacca from two days to one week. Nestled on the Malacca River, the town of the same name (or alternatively Melaka) was the greatest trading port in South East Asia in the 15th Century. Unsurprisingly it became the focus of interest for many successive invaders and the cities rich blend of cultures reflects this. There are remnants of the Portuguese, the Dutch and of course the English. Add to this the Chinese, Islamic and Buddhist denizens of the town and the diversity and invigorating multiculturism of Malacca begins to take shape.

The vibrancy of Malacca is not just limited to the multicoloured temples and buildings however. Beneath giant trees the din of parrots in the evening is deafening, whilst along the banks of the river locals line dance to an assortment of music.There is even a cameo appearance by the Tourist Police, dancing to “Rock Around the Clock.” To add to the music that abounds on the streets, garishly decorated yellow cyclo’s patrol the streets playing anything from Michael Jackson to Metallica. Guided river boat tours plough through the water, the progress of the boats preceded by a sound that is akin to a sudden downpour of rain and had us starting up to look out of the window. Our time in Malacca was spent avoiding the oppressive heat of the day, immured in the guest house between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We were up early to explore the ruins and Dutch graveyard at Bukit St. Paul (St. Paul’s Hill) and the wonders of China Town with it’s melee of Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques and nearby churches.

The ruins of St. Paul’s church are particularly enigmatic at dawn. A ghostly white statue of St Francis Xavier, one hand missing from his marble wrist (Sharia 1, Xavier 0?) surveys you loftily, whilst behind the empty shell of the cathedral dominates the hill. As any guide book will tell you St Francis Xavier was briefly interred here after his death in China. His posthumous stay in Malacca was brief however, nine months later his remains were taken to Goa, where they are to this day. Behind the deserted church old Dutch graves have a commanding view of the city below, where Chinese locals practice Tai Chi and swordsmanship in the early light of the morning. Likewise the Chinese cemetery atop Bukit China just outside town comes alive in the cooler hours of the day. The cemetery, straddling the hill for positive feng shui, is rumoured to be the largest Chinese grave yard outside of China. In the evening the contrast of joggers limbering up and stretching after a run offers an amusing contrast to the cold graves that punctuate the hill like many decaying teeth. The old town of Malacca has enough to see without leaving its narrow streets though. The lanes with their Chinese lamps. The old dilapidated buildings, vibrantly painted yet whose walls are pitted by age and roughly textured.
The Chinese temples, filled with devotees lighting incense and impaling offerings of cigarettes before the effigies. The substantial Malaysian Christian community and the grand (and some equally quaint) churches. Malaysia’s finest charm for me has been it’s enervating multiculturism and acceptance of one and all. This is embodied by it’s food and more importantly by the proudly Malaysian people; a common thing to hear when chatting to a local is “My family were from China / India / Timbuktu but I am Malaysian. And nowhere is this multiculturism more apparent than in Malacca.

The days drifted by and we were so happily ensconced at Raymond and Mani’s that we would stayed there longer had they not been fully booked the following weekend. Reluctantly we packed up and were on our way once more. We caught a series of local buses first slightly up North to the seaside town Port Dickson and then deeper South to Johor Bahru and then the godforsaken fishing village of Kukup. Port Dickson is a local retreat for those living in Kuala Lumpur. It is a fairly soulless place, but to be fair if we were to do it justice we would have needed a car. It’s redeeming factor was meeting Addy, a twenty five year old local to the area who had studied sound engineering in Leeds and who worked as a music journalist in KL. He went completely out of his way and helped us find accommodation, took us to the very worthwhile food market that evening and then later on an expedition to find beer at the El Cactus Mexican restaurant.
For all Addy’s helpfulness he was not too hot at distances, his five minute walk to the pub took closer to 45 minutes, uphill, both ways. The following day we went to watch the nearby ostrich racing which was outrageous in it’s cruelty and for the sorrowful condition of the ostriches. It was an unparalleled low as far as seven months of travel goes, an abysmal experience all round. The nearby lighthouse was, however, a lot more satisfying. The less appealing flip side of this walk was that the early evening descent was marked by mosquitoes the size of canoes. Slap your back and you’d get two at a time, then you would have to roll them off your fingers like fat, bloated slugs. On both evenings we ate at the local Pizzeria, run by a garrulous Austrian called Tino. Tino had been settled in Port Dickson for 15 years, and we got the feeling that whilst he didn’t rue the day he moved there, he wasn’t exactly ecstatic either. He sat at our table each evening, eagerly asking us questions ranging from Europe and London to our impressions of Malaysia and Thailand. He seemed visibly thirsty for conversation, but he was good company and offered us some helpful information.
On reflection it was down to his personality more than his pizza that we ate there two nights in a row. One of his ambitions is to climb Mt Kinabalu in Borneo with his son. “I’m Austrian. We see a mountain and we have to climb it. That’s the way it is with us,” he charismatically chuckled. Two nights in Port Dickson were more than enough and we headed South to the town of Seremban before getting a connecting bus to bustling Johor Bahru which is on the border with Singapore.

The next day saw us travelling ever further South to the fishing village of Kukup. I am inexorably drawn to fishing villages. They are a light bulb to my moth, nectar to a bee, a mountain to an Austrian. If money were no object, I’d live in a fishing village. I’d have a boat, a Jack Russell and I’d be happy as Larry. In fact, Happier. This would be on the condition that that fishing village was not Kukup. Or anywhere near that cursed village and it’s su
lphurous waters. The great war photographer (and a kind of personal hero if I were to have such a thing) Robert Capa once described Hollywood as “the biggest pile of sh*t I ever stepped in.”

Clearly here was a man that had never been to Kukup. Much of the town is built over the muddy banks of the ocean inlet and rests onwooden and concrete stilts. There is the overwhelming stench of drying fish in the air. Furthermore the town is redolent of sulphur, which is not really surprising as when you use the toilet you peer through the bottom of the bowl and down into the dark brown banks of the ocean bed below. Making your way along the walkways it is not unusual to see dirty shower water or worse dropping from the bowels of one of the houses. On arrival I was assailed by a podgy and surly adolescent thrusting his hand at me and saying “Give me money.” He then tried to grab my arm. I dispatched him with a few blunt words and a look of malice, yet ten minutes later he was back again. With in the space of an hour he approached me four times. My threats grew more and more animated. As it is he proved to be one of the more friendly people in town. In general we got the impression that Kukup was a little insular. It was a local town for local people. And apparently a hoard of Singaporeans who come across at the weekends. Of course this is a massive generalization and some of the people that we met were helpful enough, if not exactly effusive upon seeing us. The happiest signs of life in Kukup seemed to the ubiquitous Salamanders that basked in the mud beneath the stilts, blithe, fat, bloated and seemingly as happy as pigs in the proverbial, of which there was no shortage.

Having retreated from the fishing village, that hateful light bulb, the comforts of Johor Bahru seem wondrous. The streets here are very much alive and no more so than at night when neon lights turn the town incandescent. Food markets abound and sell all manners of delicious snacks and meals. You can buy a snake or two for virility should you wish (personally I don’t but it seems that many do) and all sorts of other charms and medications. The barber shops allegedly sell women along with their haircuts, whilst I was offered “jiggy jiggy” whilst waiting for Nipun outside a 7/11. Aphrodisiacs are big business here and unsurprisingly the city has a tawdry reputation as Singaporeans flock across the border to escape the clinical and Draconian rules of that city, where even jay walking results in hefty fines. Lets not split hairs, Johor Bahru is a veritable Sodom, but it sure beats Kukup.

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