DHH’s first day in Malaysia back in 1987 could easily have ended up being his last day on earth. Drunk as a duck after a late night with the people he was there to visit, he decided to sleep it off on the little veranda outside his hotel room. In the morning he woke up to find that the veranda was not a veranda at all, but a narrow ledge with no railing, less than a meter wide and some 20 stories above the busy streets of Kuala Lumpur. The only reason he is alive to tell the tale is that he is not in the habit rolling around very much in his sleep!
Since then, visiting Malaysia without anything dramatic happening actually feels like an achievement! This time we had about a week there, and we decided to spend the time seeking out one old and one new favourite.
The old one was the City of Malacca, some 5 hours north from Singapore travelling on the comfortable and inexpensive Malaysian long distance buses. We had found a hotel in Jonker Walk in the Chinatown area, only some 10 minute walk away from the beautiful 18 century Dutch quarters near the river. The Dutch conquered Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641 and ran it till the English took over in 1824.
DHH was there first time during the before mentioned visit in 1987, and spent a day walking peacefully amongst the beautiful red stone buildings that are now a World Heritage Site. Today this is not so easy. Tourism in Malacca has been skyrocketing over the last couple of decades, and so has the car traffic that goes straight thru the old town area. Most tourists are Asian, this is a very popular hangout for both Malaysians and Singaporeans, and to top it all off we had managed to go there during a school holiday period. On one hand, people add life and colour even to a place as fundamentally colourful as this, but on the other hand the people and the cars ruin all attempts to take good pictures. There is no way denying that the one thing all tourists hate the most is other tourists, and we have to admit that we are no exceptions to that particular rule!
Still, as often is the case, the tourists are there for a reason, and the reason is that with its red Dutch buildings, it’s old Portuguese fortress and the modern day street art, this is a stunning little town to visit. For a change, we agree with the local tourist board who invented the sentence that is the headline for this entry. «Melawat Melaka Bererti Melawati Malaysia» simply means that «to visit Malacca is to visit Malaysia».
Our new favourite was to be found another day’s bus ride further to the north. The city of Ipoh was the starting point for an excursion to the Cameron Highlands, a bit east of town. ES had heard about the vast tea plantations on the rolling green hills, always a sight worth an extra day. The landscape was definitely worth the trip – the tea is not the most exciting. They harvest mechanically and everything is fermented to black tea. No green tea from the Cameron Highlands. The whole area is not only famous for tea but also for vegetables and fruits – strawberry amongst them. They are produced in huge green houses and mainly sold in Singapore.
We were lucky enough to get connected to Jay, a Malaysian of Indian descent who had quit a good job in the local electronics industry to set up shop for himself as a guide. The one thing he could not help however was that even in the rolling green hills the traffic did not always roll as it should. Slow and nervous drivers on narrow winding roads is a time consuming combination and it makes you appreciate a local guide who knows all the tricks.
We have read about travellers who set out to visit the Cameron Highlands using public transport. We have a very simple piece of advice to anybody who considers to do that: Don’t!
From Ipoh back to Singapore it was a two day bus trip, which meant a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. That meant a good number of hours driving along a landscape that looks like one large palm oil plantation, miles upon miles with palm trees that on one hand give people income, but on the other hand take a hard toll on nature. The thousands of acres of natural forest that is taken down to make space for the plantations is one thing, the extensive use of chemicals is another. The trees only produce for a limited number of years, and when they are in decline they must be taken down to be replaced with young plants. In Malaysia however, many companies have decided it is too expensive to chop them down, even if the old tree is to be left on site to rot. Cheaper than to use a chainsaw is to drill a small hole and fill it with a chemicals The chemicals kills the tree and then enters the natural cycle. Add the regular use of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides during the period when the tree is producing, and you get an industry that very much deserves the bad reputation it has achieved in much of Europe.
Both Malaysia and Singapore are very much multicultural. The indigenous Malay make up less than 70 percent in Malaysia, with the Chinese and the Indians being the two largest minorities. The country is officially Islamic, and worth a visit if you happen to be one of those who believe that Muslims cannot live peacefully side by side with other religious groups. None of the few acts of political terrorism that has taken place in Malaysia has been instigated by Malaysians, and it is worth to notice that one of the famous red buildings in Malacca is a large church that has stood where it still is, unharmed, since 1753!
However, that does not mean that there are no tensions, because even if groups live side by side they do not necessarily mingle. Two taxi drivers we came across became very good examples, unintentionally of course on their part.
The first was Indian by origin, and he was not happy with the Chinese who he claimed was dominating business too much.
– They are very patronizing and arrogant to work for, and they often gang up against other entrepreneurs who try to set up a business that one of them might see as a competitor. The Chinese have the financial muscle to lower prices and run with a loss until they are alone again and can dominate like they are used to.
The other driver was Chinese and a little less sophisticated. He started to talk as we passed an Indian temple where people were queuing up to get in.
– Did you notice the smell of Indian food, he asked? We had just gotten into his car, so actually we had.
– Indians line up for free food, because they are too lazy to work, he continued. – The food smells bad, doesn’t it? Actually I do not know what has the worst smell, the Indian people or the Indian food. He He He…
He laughed. We did not, and he did not get a tip…