Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Malaysia Revisited

11/4/10 – 11/5/10
The campaign against litter in Oz started back in the seventies, broadcast during TV ad-breaks alongside other campaigns such as Life Be In It and a bit later Slip Slop Slap. Millions of viewers were bombarded every few minutes, between overs of the test cricket, like some sort of mass brainwashing experiment. And it actually seemed to work, producing a reduction in littering of something like seventy percent. Today, Ozwegian cities and towns are relatively clean places to be, and tossing garbage out of a car window or leaving it behind on the beach is almost taboo. Participants in the Clean up Australia movement might disagree, but the rubbish collected yearly on a typical beach in Oz, probably only represents the weekly accumulation of detritus on a typical Malaysian beach.

In fact, living in Malaysia makes you realise just how much rubbish humans generate, simply because here it is visible for all to see, not concealed inside those girly containers called garbage bins. Nowhere is this more apparent than when riding down through southern Thailand. Past Songkhla, where the atmosphere begins to turn Malay, the ghosts of roadside markets remain. Huge rectangles of white on green - paper and styrofoam on grass. Drainage ditches become defacto landfill, the growing grass partly concealing countless kuay teow takeaway containers, until the rains come and wash everything into the nearest river.

Once across the border however, its obvious that the capital of Kelantan, Kota Bharu, is in a completely different league. It only takes an hour or two walking the streets to appreciate that this could easily be the filthiest city in Malaysia. From the rubbish lining the roadside, to the dumps which line its river banks, to the stinking morning after mess which is the city’s central market, Kota Bharu is a tip.

Of course everything is relative, and all of the above pales in comparison with any Indonesian city we could mention.

People actually buy food from this waterfront market in Pontianak.

Peoples homes line the stagnant canals which snake their way through the heart of Semarang.

Malaysia isn’t this bad, but its still disappointing, especially in a country which has so much else going for it. And the thing is, there are probably only two main obstacles to overcome: public attitude and government inaction.

At present, the public genuinely seems to consider the act of placing rubbish in a bin uncool. But wait just a second. Wasn’t this the general attitude of the Ozwegian public back in the seventies? Quite possibly, if our short term memory hasn’t failed us, there’s a simple, tried and tested solution to this problem.

Which will be a completely pointless exercise unless there are enough bins for waste disposal. Which are then emptied often enough to prevent them overflowing out onto the streets. And while we’re on the subject, if any of you have every ridden a motorbike on KLs highways (or driven them in a car with the windows down), you may have wondered at some point what that god-awful smell was. And kept wondering for miles, while that rotten-garbage odour seemed to be following you. Right up until the moment you spotted the dirty big garbage truck hammering along up ahead. At which point your whole mission in life became catching and overtaking that stinking yellow moving violation.

That’s right dear viewers; it may surprise you to know that most of the world has yet to adopt wheelie bins (or Mobile Garbage Bins if you want to get all technical). Which means these filthy great old-fashioned, open-backed garbage trucks prowl the streets, leaving nothing but tainted air in their wake. Obviously many countries can’t afford the infrastructure required to deal with the switch to MGBs. Even in the UK, they’ve only begun distributing them in the last few years.

Malaysia however, a country in which the method of household waste disposal seems to involve these big smelly trucks with two guys hanging out the back, who either ferret around in industrial waste bins, or manually collect garbage bags dumped by the sides of roads, can afford to do something about it. In fact Malaysia produces MGBs, exporting them to countries like Oz at ridiculously cheap prices, undercutting local manufacturers.

But anyway...

We’re just two people passing through. What do we care? Well, we care enough to be disgusted at the sight of fast food wrappers strewn all through the trails of national parks. And we care enough to be fed up at the sight of discarded water bottles which, in countries like Malaysia where the tap water is perfectly safe to drink, are truly one of the world’s great abominations.

One of the modifications we considered for the bikes before we left, was welding larger feet to their side stands. You know, to prevent them sinking in soft earth or sand and tipping the whole bike over. However, due to the profusion of plastic bottles on beaches and by the sides of roads and pretty much everywhere, this modification would have been completely unnecessary. Sad, isn’t it?

Songkhran on the other hand is a happy, let your hair down kind of festival, where people get together to chuck water all over each other. Sure its a Thai festival, but there’s a large Thai community living in Kota Bharu, so one day we head out to a Buddhist temple with KS and LC, to get soaked.

These two run a guesthouse here, and are passionate about travel and meeting people. Another time KS takes us across the river to see the bizarre practise of floss-making. That’s floss as in candy-floss. But in this case its beef. Beef! We can hear you thinking, but bear with us, because it actually tastes really good.

Which is just as well, because making it is an incredibly labour intensive process. Just teasing out the meat fibres to make them all fluffy and flossy requires an entire day standing over a huge hot iron wok, situated inside a big hot corrugated iron-roofed shed. Not to mention the previous day, where the beef and secret herbs and spices are all boiled together and reduced down in another huge iron wok, inside another big shed.

The heart of Kota Bharu has its own big shed called the Pasar Besar, or big market, roughly translated.

Sure it stinks (well the wet market does anyway), but its a great place to people watch.

So we’re trying to think of something intelligent to say about it.

Just so we can post loads of photos of the place.

Shameless really.

But what can you do?

Here’s another good one.

Ok, enough already.

After dark, Route 4, the east-west highway linking Kota Bharu and Penang, is transformed from your typical motor vehicle-use type road, to a mixed-use highway. And because that mix includes elephants, we decide to ride it during the morning. Thobrani’s coming up to Sungai Petani today, so we arrange to meet him at the house. We’ve missed these guys, and can’t wait to see someone we actually know for a change.

Of course, having no idea why he’s up here from KL, its not a huge surprise when he invites us to an Indian wedding the next day. Besides which, we’ve already had a bit of experience gatecrashing Malaysian weddings. Funerals. Exorcisms...

We’re completely ignorant about Indian weddings, but this one is pure Bollywood, with the ceremony performed on stage, and projected live onto two big screens in front of hundreds of seated guests. But the antics on stage, which at one point involve people dancing around an open fire, are only part of the entertainment. On the large circular tables below, lunch is served for our wining (sorry, this is Malaysia, so no alcohol folks) and dining pleasure. All the while the big boys circulate, catching up on old business acquaintances and exchanging new mobile numbers. There’s a bit of a stir when the ex-Chief Minister of Kedah arrives with his entourage in tow, but there are more Doctors and Datuks here than at the launch of a new Mercedes S Class.

A week passes in Sungai Petani, and then we’re off to the Perhentians.

Pulau Perhentian Kecil and Besar are a couple of small islands off the coast of Kuala Besut, just to the south of Kota Bharu. Thobrani has a resort on Kecil and we’d been curious for months to see it, but last time we were here it was monsoon season. Which at the time didn’t stop him going over every weekend to supervise construction. Or his boatman for that matter, who managed to sink all three of his boats in the big seas.

Everyone’s happy on the trip over because the boatman’s on the island, not steering the boat.

The trip back wasn’t quite so pleasant, with more than one person hurling over the railing. Fortunately, since Lucas had taken a magic pill prior to setting sail, it wasn’t him.

Another week passes in Sungai Petani.

No pergi! No pergi! You might remember Atik, the Indonesian housekeeper, from previous episodes. She gets pretty lonely in the big house, so when we finally work up the courage to tell her we’re going, its no pergi! Which is kind of a mongrel mix of English and Bahasa, and her way of saying don’t go. But after hugs all round - which is kind of weird, because they don’t really go in for hugging here – we’re off to Ipoh.

We probably both knew it would be a little strange backtracking to Malaysia, after all a few months ago we’d left here on a mission to get to India. But there are times, like when the lady on the front desk of the hotel we’d stayed in before races outside when she spots us on the bikes, ushering us back into the same room. Times when its nice to trade excitement for security. Times when you can just walk across the road to the same Indian restaurant, look the waiter straight in the eye and say “Roti telur, dua.” Minum? “Kopi o kosong, dua.” Taking comfort in one of the world’s great breakfasts.

Speaking of hockey... we’ve never been big fans, although Ann did play it briefly at school. So when we noticed that Ipoh was hosting an international tournament, including countries like Australia, India and Pakistan, and admission was free, we thought what the hell. You only live once.

Apparently the Sultan of Perak and his family are hockey tragics, and we spot him one night making a grand entrance to Ipoh in his Maybach, accompanied by a full police escort. The Royal situation in Malaysia is something we’re still completely clueless about; the politics here are complicated enough to come to grips with. All we know is that their goings-on are generally behind closed doors, and that they are stupendously wealthy. An example of which is the new palace being constructed in KL. In terms of scale, think not of a building the size of a major shopping centre. Imagine something more on the scale of an airport, or a university campus and you’ve got the general idea.

Kacang kacang kacang kacang... the voice of the peanut man as he makes his rounds. Kacang of course means peanut, and is pronounced “kachang”. The peanut man has a very John Wayne-esque delivery though, so it sounds more like kah-chang kah-chang kah-chang kah-chang. Come ‘n get yer kah-chang, pilgrims.

Oh yeah, back to the hockey... and in the opening night’s game, Malaysia manage to blow a 3-1 lead to draw with Pakistan in the dying minutes.

Speaking of dying, Ipoh is another appalling place to drive – most of Malaysia is. We were going to have a bit of a rant about it, but thought maybe two rants per post might be stretching the friendship. But next time, oh boy... that’s if we survive until next time, of course.

A couple of nights later we lend our support to the Australian team, in their match against the locals.

Not that they needed it. No, that’s unfair. Malaysia defended well to go down 2-1, but the match was locked up until the last few minutes.

Ok then, that’s probably about as much excitement as you can stand for the time being.

So we’ll leave you with a couple more shots of Kota Bharu.

Ta ta for now...

1 comment:

  1. Nice pics , good discription of the places you have seen // reseen.
    Take care, Love N