Thursday, February 09, 2017

Malaysian Sketches




1.
From the air, Malaysia appears as a carpet of palms...
  
...immigration queues seem separated by types of clothing:  Malaysians in Muslim attire; Chinese in business suits; tourists in shorts and T-shirts... 
...the pesky little issue with Customs.  Bringing gifts of sake to Japanophile friends, forgetting completely that Malaysia is a Muslim country.   

...Riding in from the airport:  A burnt-out truck in a rest area.  Billboards still welcoming those attending the 2015 ASEAN Summit.  Women on billboards, each a beauty, each in hajib.  Billboards of children, each studious, each bespectacled...

  ...All Asia is beginning to look the same.  You determine your whereabouts by the calendar rather than landscape.  If it's Tuesday, it must be Bentong...


2.
...walking the 3D cityscape of KL, a children's pop-up book of papercuts backed by jungly hills, and the low rise of old town dwarfed by a third layer of massive glass spires beyond.  In comparison, the cities of Japan are flat, a jumble of multi-level structures.  KL has no middle-ground, with deep gaps in the strata...
 
...early mornings sitting quietly on the veranda of a friend's flat in Damansara, listening to the birdsong until their voices are lost to the sound of cars.  Then the call to prayer.  There's a beauty in its cutting through the thin morning air, filling the valley with syllables that rise and fall as if the fickleties of faith. This is far more pleasant than what follows: the incessant and steady clang clang clang of the bell of the Hindu temple, jarring the gods awake.   One morning, I see a plume of smoke rising from the structure beside the mosque, a serpentine ribbon of smoke, charmed by an unheard flute. I turn away for awhile and as I turn back I see that the same smoke now coats the entire valley, the entire city, the entire view. I realize then that it's rain, rain that has come in sudden and hard. It's interesting being in a new place in the rain, to see how the locals react, how dramatically affected they are to what is certainly a common experience here in the tropics. It helps me notice for the first time that the entrances to all the shops lined shoulder-to-shoulder have overhanging balconies, no doubt for this very reason. Pedestrians and motorcycles begin to thin.  On a street or two over, a car horn begins to sound. Then the obligatory sirens...


3.
...the tourist hordes at Malacca have carried away piecemeal any charm the town may have once had.  And on this day too, it is overrun.  The streets in its World Heritage Chinatown have never ending traffic, making walking very unpleasant.  The museums and tourist sites themselves aren't terribly interesting, and look decades old.  More attention goes into the obnoxious tri-rickshaws that shriek as they go past.  Tourism reduced to its least common denominator, the Disneyfication of everywhere.  It bloody well is a small world after all.  Too fucking small.  But the food redeems...    




4.
...on the way to Cameron Highlands, at nearly every bend in the road are Orang Asli huts, their laundry strung along like pinafores...  

...seen from afar, the strawberry greenhouses of the Highlands are streamers of confetti littering the ridge line... 

... recreating Jim Thompson's final walk, through a stretch of jungle, mind ever conscious of tigers.  Thompson's villa itself is off-limits, owned by a businessman with no apparent sense of history.  Granted he owns the property, but the abuse of the surrounding jungle is criminal, in the felling of centuries-old Scottish pine, and the illegal drainage system.  Thompson's estate in Bangkok has made numerous offers to turn the site into a museum, but the owner refuses to budge.  Ironically, I lose my earring on the walk, not far from where Thompson himself disappeared in 1967...
 
...a quiet afternoon spent on the veranda, enshrouded by teak and rattan.  It was nice playing at being British for a day, having strawberry scones for tea, watching the limbs of the proud Scottish pines brush away the final winds of the waning monsoon.... 
 
...I am personally disappointed with the Highlands, long a place of mystery to me, due to the Thompson myth.  How much better to leave such places to the realm of imagination.  There is far too much building going on, large concrete hotels scratched out of former jungle. I come across a book that tells me that the government is attempting to "Restore the Highlands to its former glory," as if they themselves admit how unattractive it has become.  I'm not sure what the methods of restoration are, but in this case, subtraction seems better than addition...


5.
...the great mosque at Ipoh dimpled like the lunar base in some 70s sci-fi TV show. Still a beauty, in a beautiful town.  Worth an overnight next time...

...wending westward through the hills, crossing the Sungai Perak river and into the forests of rubber... 

...Taiping massacred, a living museum in its own right, almost the polar opposite of Malaccca in that no care at all has gone into any upkeep. Walking past monuments to former colonial glory has some charm, though perhaps not in the heat of midday.  Few tourists seem to come here, nor do they really need to I suppose.  LYL and I have a quick lunch in some nondescript little corner shop, ordering things hanging behind scratched glass. (I think that it must be tough to be a chicken in a country like this.  The Hindus avoid beef, the Muslims avoid pork, but chicken is fair game to all.) A young fellow nearby seems taken with me and my foreignness, though it may simply be his tall bottle of Guinness.  He repeatedly tries to talk to me, to find a common language.  LYL with her four Chinese dialects stays quiet, letting me have this moment.  I am able to figure out that he is a Burmese refugee, hard-up it seems.  He tells me that he is a Christian.  Am I a Christian?  When I tell him that if I am anything, it is Buddhist, he shifts into Hokkien and calls me a fucking cunt.  It's a small mind after all...     

 
6.
...where Malacca got it so wrong, Penang got it perfectly right.  In fact it is one of the best preserved of Asia's many historical capitals.  The recent street art isn't really necessary, being nothing more than a flourish, but doesn't detract in the least. As it is, the art is somewhat hidden, something you stumble upon, though these days you simply look for the usual mob armed with selfie sticks.  Georgetown's true art of course is its architecture, made more beautiful due to its utility. The beauty lies exactly in the fact that they are still being used. (The sole exception being the Pinang Peranakan mansion, which looks more like a dumping ground for antiques.  The house in Malacca is far better, though the staff there is uptight and unpleasant.) Most houses have been allowed to reflect their historical importance, like that of Sun Yat-sen, made all the more atmospheric for the clack of majong tiles coming from the house next door.  Some structures have been converted into bars and restaurants; others are abandoned, but look like they can be resuscitated rather easily.  Strolling the streets is a feast for the eye. As for the mouth, well the food in town can hold its own with any in the world.  Malaysia is sadly underrated as a food culture...

...  the aging queen, the E & O Hotel.  Our suite is spacious and harkens back to a time when travel was glamorous, without any self-conscious attempt to do so. Granted the staff is dressed in old period garb, but it feels like they have always done so.  History hangs heavy in the air like ghosts.  But they welcome, rather than haunt.  Much the same can be said about the Old Protestant Cemetery nearby.  A person can learn everything they need to know about Penang by simply reading the headstones.  So many lives lost young here, the price to be paid in order to build a colony.  I find the headstone for Thomas Leonowens, husband to Anna, of The King and I fame.  Incredible to think that in dying young, Thomas had set into motion the education of a future king, who would lead Siam progressively into the future...

 ...avoiding the crowds to go up Penang Hill.  We stroll the old abandoned cottages here.  I wanted to see the Bellevue Hotel since I had heard that they once had venomous snakes in the trellises above the dining tables of the garden terrace.  The hotel looks like it has declined in more recent years, and I assumed that the snakes, and the dining area itself, were long gone. (However a bit of searching online confirmed that they are still in residence there.)   We do find snakes at the Snake Temple further south, as promised.  The couple of dozen that we see are extremely listless, yet we tread very carefully.  I am very afraid of snakes, and it takes a fair bit of courage to wander about the place.  I am repeatedly startled while looking at a photo of something, then to suddenly notice a snake just overhead...


7.
...the climactic sunset of the final night, seen from the beach of Langkawi, as if the sky is set aflame due to sparks thrown upward by the collision of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.  Then the return flight through that same sky, a fortnight's worth of destinations far below, tell-tale traces laid bare for  eyes made experienced at their acquaintance.  


On the turntable:  Coleman Hawkins, "Imagination"

No comments: