Saturday, November 20, 2010

15 November 2010 - Air Asia X Flt D72702

In the air somewhere over Indonesia.

Breakfast on the verandah of the once-grand now just “Majestic” Station Hotel in Ipoh matched our room in the less-than-spectacular stakes. Cold chicken sausage, cold, deep-fried noodles, burnt toast (our fault) and jam. Oh, well, it was clean and we had a good night's sleep.

With only a couple of hundred kms to cover for the day, we elected to take a 'scenic' loop near the KL International Airport to see some “off the tourist track” parts of Malaysia. We headed for the small town of Morib, about 40 kms south-west of KLIA. No real surprises. The roads were good, the traffic moderate and the drivers erratic. The largest town on our route was Banting, a good example of what Malaysia is and will soon become. Despite some crumbling older buildings, the streets were spotlessly clean, cranes dotted the skyline, new roads were being built, new drainage works being dug. New, new, new!

We had made our little side trip hoping to find a traditional Malay fishing village. If we had more time, we probably could have found one, but the best we could do was a small fleet of boats gathered in a creek beside the main road.

While our thoughts are fresh and we have heaps of time – it's an 8 hour flight – it is probably a good time for some reflections.

In short, we really enjoyed our short stay in Malaysia. We probably didn't have enough time to truly appreciate the natural wonders that the country has to offer, so any serious comment on the scenery would be a bit unfair. What did surprise us was the enormous amount of open space. Not true wilderness by any means, but rolling hills covered with dense jungle lined the motorway for almost all the 400 km trip from KL to Penang. The Cameron Highlands with Tea Plantations, Palm Oil Plantations and Strawberry Farms gave us a cool, almost cold, break from the tropical heat of the coast.

Malaysia, for us, was more about the culture and the lifestyle. Culturally, it is a true miracle, well at least on the surface. Chinese, Indians, Malays and a number of indigenous minority groups, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians co-exist in relative harmony. But true integration of the many racial and religious groups simply doesn't exist. Inter-marriage seems to be extremely rare, education is segregated on religious and racial grounds and even living areas are roughly zoned on an ethnic basis.

Language could be another great divide. While most people seem to have a smattering of the three major 'domestic' languages, Malay, Chinese and Hindi, the real common language is English. A great advantage to us as travellers and probably a significant advantage for Malaysia in the future as English is fairly much the universal language.

All that aside, the people of Malaysia seem firmly united in their loyalty to Malaysia itself. They have a Malaysian identity. Sure, they still have filial loyalties to their various 'origins', but so do Greek Australians, South African Australians, Vietnamese and Chinese Australians.

It is impossible to travel in this country and not recognise the vigour and drive of its people. It is all happening in Malaysia.

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the road II

Georgetown, Penang
12 November 2010

Penang is the smallest state in Malaysia, made up of a densely-populated and industrialised coastal plain and the Island of Penang, joined to the mainland by a long causeway and bridge. Georgetown was the administrative centre of the British Straits Colonies and it still retains many of the grand colonial buildings of that period. Traffic is a little more hectic here than in the capital. Narrow streets, many one way, confused our GPS system to the point where we had to pull out the maps to find our hotel.

Foodies love Penang because it has such an enormous array of cuisine available at such reasonable prices. Last night we ate at one of the many 'food halls' that are a cross between the modern food courts that pervade shopping malls worldwide and an open Asian market. If we were hungry enough, we could have grazed across a bewildering selection of Japanese, Malay, Thai, Chinese, Western and several variants of Indian food. To top it off, there was the ubiquitous waffle and ice-cream stand. If you are wondering, we went for a Chinese squid dish with bok choy and rice on the side – no idea what it was called! All this and a large bottle of Tiger beer for just over $5 a head. Got to love it!

Georgetown, Penang
13 November 2010

Second day in Penang was fairly laid back. An extremely pleasant meeting with a new family friend who is in Georgetown due to a family accident filled in our morning. Then it was shop, shop, shop. Even the big brand products purchased at big department stores are about one third of the price at home. If we needed new clothes, we could have filled our bags and easily paid for our flights. Sadly, we don't need much (what an ignominious comment on our life style!).

It was not a totally hedonistic day, however. We also visited the Museum of Penang at the huge cost of 1 Malay Ringgit each (about 30c) – a nicely presented museum which took us through the history of Penang, dealing with all the cultural groups sympathetically. A Ringgit well spent! And we took a stroll through the Protestant Cemetery, final resting place of Captain Francis Light, who took possession of the state in 1786. He is important, as well, as the father of William Light, who founded Adelaide. The cemetery is also home to the remains of Thomas Leonowens, husband of Anna, of “The King and I” fame.

It was a big news day in Asia today as Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention in Burma. Makes us wonder just what the future of South-East Asia will be. We have been amazed at the level of development in Malaysia. Patchy it might be but, like other Asian countries we have visited, it is all happening. We don't feel at all out of place here. Language is not a problem. Getting about is relatively easy. People are welcoming. The culture here is truly multi-cultural, at least on the surface. And we as 'westerners' are not treated as total outsiders. Many people we meet have been to Australia and it is fairly common, at least for the more affluent, to be educated in Australia. Australians may not feel Asian, but with 10% of our population now Asian born, it may not be too long before we become more comfortable with the notion of an Australia that is more Asian than European.

14 November 2010

“It's good to be king!”

Leaving Georgetown today was like a Sunday morning drive in the 'burbs'. Hardly a car in sight. So it took us no time to hit the motorway - did we say what a fantastic motorway this is?? - and arrive at the small (200,000) city of Taiping. After a while, the towns and city centre all look the same. Tiaping did, however, have an interesting museum with some great cultural exhibits and some very sad stuffed animals. A fairly quick walk about the city centre was all we could manage in the increasing heat.

Kuala Kangsar, our next stop, is the royal seat of Sultan of Perak. The town is fairly non-descript, but the Royal precinct is simply opulent! His Highness the Sultan has a residence that makes Buckingham Palace look like a coach house. His old residence is now a Gallery devoted to his Highness and his, not insignificant, achievements - Barrister, Chief Judge of the High Court of Malaysia, sports fan and all around good guy. The crowning glory for us was his collection of four Rolls Royces. It's obviously Great to be King!.

Tonight is our last night in Malaysia, so we thought we might lash out a bit. We booked the Majestic Station Hotel Ipoh over the web last night. We expected a grand Rajah era palace with open verandahs, period fittings and all the grandeur of colonial Malaya. As we turned into the drive way of the Majestic, we were greeted with exactly what we had imagined.

A Palace! ?

Perhaps the fact that the room rate was about $35 including breakfast should have alerted us. Everything was, in fact, just as advertised, except that 50 years have passed since any major upgrading has been done. The period rooms are just that. Cary Grant could have stayed in our room and if he had come back today, not much would have changed. Not even the paint which is now peeling badly. It's not all bad though. Everything is clean and our room opens onto the grand verandah, complete with fans and probably the same chairs that were there when Cary (may have) visited.

The biggest draw back for us was the lack of a fridge. Not at all phased, we wandered down town to the local Chinese cafe and had a few beers with the locals. It defies description. You just had to be there!!!

Friday, November 12, 2010

On the road (Again)

Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
11 November 2010

Another city conquered and with consummate ease. Having walked around KL for a few days, we were fairly sure the traffic wouldn't be a problem. Good roads, an excellent freeway system and - Surprise! Surprise! - mostly good drivers. We were out of central KL in a flash and on the main motorway north within 30 minutes of picking up our hire car. If this were Europe, most drivers here would be blasted or 'flashed' off the road. For us, though, the Malaysian practice of passing on which ever side feels good at the time was no real shock. That's just what happens at home! Motorbikes and scooters are a bit frightening at times, but there are relatively few of them compared to places like Vietnam. They are, however, just as suicidal!

High in the mountains of Pahang, the Cameron Highlands are almost 2000 mtrs above sea level. It is cool here, around 23C, a great relief from the draining tropical heat of Kuala Lumpur. A 70 km windy road took us up from the coast through lush jungle. The population density here is quite low, with villages and towns sparsely scattered along the valleys. In fact, much of the route here today was fairly open country with Palm Oil plantations interspersed with forest regrowth, far from the popular image of a crowded south-east Asia.

Our first stop today was a Tea Plantation, established in 1929 by J. A. Russell. Beautiful, green tea plants covered the hills, set out in neat rows, only interrupted by the bobbing heads of a few pickers. They use machines mostly, these days, a sort of hedge trimmer, but the steeper slopes are “picked” using hand shears still. We enjoyed a self-guided tour of the factory and discovered tea is remarkably easy and fast to process – very user-friendly for the factory owner!

Our hotel/hostel is at the back of the town, right up against the jungle. We've already seen a small monkey from our window. Given the great expanse of jungle we have driven through today, we would hope there is still some wildlife left up here in the hills.

Tanah Rata is a fairly touristy town, but it still retains some of the feel of an old hill town. The shop fronts have been 'tarted-up' somewhat, but most still maintain a little of the authentic Asian feel. And, it must be said, they are a little dirty. Comparisons with southern European towns came immediately to mind for us. On our first visit to Italy and Greece over 30 years ago, rural towns had much the same feel as the country towns of Asia today, cars everywhere, rubbish in the streets, decaying buildings and that, not-quite-finished look to public infrastructure like roads and footpaths. It also has to be said, that there are more than a few towns in Mediterranean Europe that are still like this today.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur
8 November 2010
Found it first off!

Places like Kuala Lumpur have become so developed, civilized and, saddest of all, sophisticated, that it is becoming difficult to find 'Old Asia'. In Istanbul a year or so ago, we had enormous difficulty finding 'Old Turkey'.

Tonight, after a fairly uneventful flight, we jumped an airport shuttle bus and a suburban monorail to our hotel in the district of Chow Kit. We'd chanced on Old Asia! - complete with narrow streets, footpath businesses, ramshackle housing that probably survived the Japanese occupation, even rubbish in the streets being torn apart by scrawny, scavenging cats. Evening bought the complex aromas of Indian, Malay, Chinese and Thai food cooked at stalls strung out along the narrow, car-clogged streets. Fantastic!

From our hotel window we can see the glittering face of 'New Asia' – New Malaysia. KL is more like Singapore than Saigon with a highly developed freeway system, well-groomed parks and all the trimmings of the new wealth of Asia. But here in the back streets of Chow Kit, the mosque booms out at sunset, kids play in the streets and families eat out in the local open area stalls. This is a predominantly Malay/Muslim suburb. 90% of females wear the simple scarf and the multi-coloured long skirts and tunics so favoured by these women. On our wanderings before and after dinner, we didn't see one European face. And the prices! Dinner for two with a couple of enormous orange drinks, $6 AUS – all up.

Kuala Lumpur
9 November 2010

As the story goes, if KL were left unattended for a year, it would never be found again. It would be lost to the jungle. Some parts of the city have already fallen back into the jungle, even while awaiting the inevitable new high rise towers to be built.

This is a surprisingly 'spacey' city. From our hotel window, no more than a kilometre, as the crow flies, from the city, we look over a mix of medium density housing, 'up-market' inner city slums, lots of open space. And carparks. Heaps of carparks. But there is greenery everywhere This IS the tropics, just a few hundred kms north of the equator. So you can cut the air with a knife, even though it is technically winter. Great growing weather.

In a couple of days, we pick up a hire car from virtually the centre of the city and head off north to Penang. Now, we have driven in some crazy places - Istanbul, Fez, and Marrakesh, not to mention Paris, Rome and our personal favourite, Messina (Sicily). But we must admit that we had had some reservations about driving in central KL. All the stories we had heard had us imagining the sort of chaos that is Saigon or Hanoi. Nothing could be further from the truth. A system of freeways moves traffic efficiently around the city and the major ground level Jalan (streets) are well regulated and fairly lightly trafficked. Even the city's excellent monorail and light-rail services are not overly taxed. This morning about 10am, we made an inner city connection between the monorail and LRT arriving at an underground station concourse with not a soul in sight. Even in the connecting tunnel we passed only one fellow traveller. Where is everybody?

Later in the day we found a fair portion of them in the enormous six level shopping mall at the base of the iconic Petronas Towers.

Notwithstanding previous comments about the attractions of the 'Old Asia', parts of the city have a major problem with garbage disposal and general public hygiene. While the CBD is very Singapore like in its cleanliness, turn down any side street elsewhere in KL and the stench of rotting garbage and piles of litter in the streets may well deter some travellers.

Chinatown, on the fringes of the city centre, was our first stop today. In a way, this part of the city typifies the dilemma we face in loving and 'hating' the rundown 'Old Asian' parts of cities like KL. The character of this part of the city is an enormous attraction. Closely-packed shops, crowded streets, noise and the chance of a bargain, keep drawing us in. Picking your way through wet, steaming refuse is challenging. But we keep coming back and as long as we have our hand sanitizer, we'll be fine??

Late in the day today, we eventually found (yes lost again!) a restored traditional Malay Village Headman's house. The ornate timber house was rescued from the jungle in 1996 to preserve one of the last remaining homes of this type. In itself, the building would have normally only drawn a glance from us. However, curious souls that we are, we went in and got the full individual tour. Our guide was a young Malay girl who was doing a student placement with the Heritage of Malaysia Trust. Her telling of the story of the house and the cultural importance of such places in the Kampong culture of old Malaya was the highlight of our day.

Kuala Lumpur
10 November 2010

Sometimes you've just got to wonder. In this amazingly complex and sophisticated city, today we saw a young guy 'mowing' a soccer field with a whipper-snipper. Well, we've seen stranger things but we really can't remember when.

We had what could be described as an aimless day of wandering today. Except that we did have a few plans. The National Museum of Malaysia was to be our first stop. On the map, it was an easy walk from KL-Sentral. On the ground, not quite so. Construction works at the station had closed many surrounding roads and signage, of course, is non-existent. After a few harsh words and a lot of sweat in the 30+ tropical heat, we finally found a special secret back entrance to the museum, via Singapore. The museum itself was just as the Lonely Planet had put it, 'worth a visit'. (Read -“Ok but not spectacular”).

Lunch time was scheduled for the Imbi Markets. Early afternoon heat had us walking what we call the 'Asian walk'. More like a genteel stroll, really. With the help of yet another friendly local, we discovered that the markets only open in the early morning. Oh well! There was a nice, air-conditioned mega-mall just a km or so away. Not the same atmosphere, but very cool!

Finally, our plans called for a well-structured walk through Little India. Here is the point where we must mention street signs in KL. There never seem to be any on your chosen path! (Lots when you don't need them, of course!) So, fit as we are, we were flagging a little once we had meandered aimlessly, rather than 'guided' through little India. Some features of the areas we were shuffling through seemed familiar, so we pressed on home to Chow Kit, discovering our local suburban markets on the way. The markets were amazing – fruit, veges, fish, beef and chicken are all well-presented, cheap – and CLEAN! Nary a fly – even around the complete cow's heads! So being lost can be fun, once you have washed the frustrations of the day away with a few beers.

Tomorrow we hit the road towards Penang.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How this started

Holland Park (about 8 months ago)

On a typical Saturday morning, there we were at the kitchen table, bacon sizzling on the stove, Saturday papers shared out, sipping coffee...

Screaming out at us was an ad for flights to Kuala Lumpur for just a little more than the taxi fare to the Brisbane Airport! "Can't be true!" we said! But, oh YES, it was! $99 each way, Brisbane to KL. What could we do? I mean what COULD we do?

Within 30 minutes, we had booked a return flight and three nights in a 4 star hotel in KL for less than a weekend at the Gold Coast.

So. Just back from our Round Australia trip, we are about to jump a flight to Malaysia for a week.

Watch this space.