Malaysia (the return)

So it was I went back to Malaysia. Good thing it has two coastlines, or I’d have been on a serious backtracking binge, the kind I’d rather avoid. The only repeat that stood in the way was KL, and I had things to do there anyway. Crossing from Singapore could not have been easier, you get off the bus and up an escalator, line up for a few minutes, show your passport, go down some steps and onto another bus (in theory the same one as the first time, but that doesn’t always happen) and then onto another building where you all get off and deal with the Malaysian side of the deal and then once again, onto a bus and from there to the bus station in Johor Bharu. Given the state of things, it seemed a trifle unnecessary to go to all that effort, all the getting on and off, but the two countries do need to keep each other at some kind of arm’s length in the great pissing contest that neighbouring nations like to stir up.

At the bus station in JB there was zero downtime getting onto a bus to Melaka, minutes if any, such was the fortune of my timing. I had steeled myself for the harsh reality of the non-Singapore world again, but Malaysia is not Indonesia. It feels like it, quite often actually, but everything works and is quite clean, people don’t hassle you; nor do they want your life story at every corner, which is both relieving and somehow saddening. Days would pass without real interaction from strangers, and it turns out that I actually miss it a little. Seems Indonesia got under my skin more than just a little bit, seems it got right under there. The bus ride to Melaka saw me sleeping most of the way. I woke up just in time to see that we were there already, sooner than I had thought. A Hungarian dude I met in Singapore told me about a new hostel in town, and how to get there, so cutting a path through the taxi-drivers gauntlet I made for local bus 17 and paid 80 sen, getting off next the Equatorial Hotel. The place, called Emily’s, is only about a minute form there, but I went slightly the wrong way and ended up spending a lot longer looking. Having found it, I rang the doorbell and the guy running the place stuck his head out and looked slightly surprised to see someone coming in. They had room, and I told them who told me about it (it had only been open about a year so it wasn’t in any of the guidebooks yet) and I settled in. The place was magnificent, they had gone to a lot of trouble to decorate it very nicely indeed, all with recycled materials.

There were fish ponds, plants and gardens, everything was painted nice and a lot of it had been done by guests of the place. The showers were especially nice, all flowers and murals, the shower head coming out the brickwork. It was a nice place just to hang out, a quiet and friendly place to be, a million miles away from the busy streets outside. That night there were some friendly folk in the house too, so it was I didn’t get out and see any of the town. It was kinda late, mind you, so I hadn’t planned on doing anything like that – but rarely is the accommodation so accommodating. In fact, it might well be a top-five hostel, just for the ambience and décor alone. Be sure to drop by if you’re ever in town. The dorm room was a two-bed dorm, so it was more of a shared-twin, and the first night I shared it with an Irishman named Wesley, after that it was all mine.

Wesley and I had a drink and a talk that night, the ‘adventure’ I had in Singapore came out and he told me he’d achieved the same high score in the bed I was now sleeping in. Thanks, you Mickey bastard, if you weren’t so nice I’d defame you right here for that. But as it was, he was off to Singapore the next morning, leaving me free to explore the city.

My first impressions were so bad that I went right back to the hostel to breathe in the atmosphere (it really was that nice in there) and sulk. I got the laptop out and wrote of other times, taking the opportunity to get it down while no-one else was around. Looking back on the history of the place, I felt there should have been so much more. All I’d seen were some painted red buildings right next to the main road, so the traffic was out of control, and some of the most annoying rickshaw drivers in all Malaysia. A walk into the fabled Chinatown yielded little charm. It turned out that I’d missed the best bits, quite unluckily, so it was a good thing I didn’t give up right there and jump a bus to elsewhere.

I had the garden all to myself most of the day and the space turned into a talk-fest of the evening. That second night was quieter, it was just the guys running the place, myself and an elderly Swedish lady who was taking her retirement and doing it longer and harder than most kids do these days. Much respect to Christina, one of the originals. She had nothing bad to say about anything and nothing was happy stories to share around. If she had travelled in her youth, or been to Asia before she didn’t say, but there was none of that ‘if only you’d been here twenty years ago’ crap people of that age group love to dribble onto people like me. Yeah, like when I was five? Sure thing, Grandpa.

The next day I gave it all another shot and the long and meandering history of Melaka came out of those painted red walls. Colonised by Portuguese, Dutch and English powers over the centuries, it had always been an important trading point and strategic position. Even today more trade flows through the Straights of Melaka than either Suez or Panama canals, and so it has been for hundreds of years. Before the Europeans came the Melaka Sultanate controlled major sections of the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Java, and sending the Europeans on their way were the Japanese, during the brief occupation during World War II. The remaining historical buildings are mostly Portuguese in origin, the church on the hill, the town hall, and the buildings around there. Now, they all hold museums of differing subject and quality, and to my mind they mock the shabby nature of the modern building around. There’s absolutely nothing to stop people now building fine looking pieces of real estate, but instead we get the same concrete and aluminium garbage that infects too many otherwise good cities.

So that was exploring Melaka. The Chinatown area looks like any commercial district in a second-rate city most anywhere in Asia, with the exception of Jonker Street, a nice clean thoroughfare with footpaths and some really interesting shops. I bought a t-shirt. I stayed on there a bit longer, because interesting people showed up that night, and we all went out and bought charcoal and things to cook on the barbeque. It was a ravishing good time. I was planning to leave in the morning but stayed around to hang out with the people who had appeared, and didn’t get to the bus station until almost five. KL is close, so it was no big deal, but it did mean that once I was in KL my hostel of choice was full and I had to settle for slightly more expensive option. The same place, in fact, where I’d stayed that first night back in January. Things has come full circle indeed, but this time there was no Egon, no Yanti and no friendly faces in the crowds. Nothing to do, lean on or even go and see. I called my friends from my uni days and we arranged a meet-up, but I was at the mercy of their timing and schedules.

Lucky for me, William had about as much free time as someone could hope to have while also having a decent life otherwise, so he became my main man. The next day, having moved across the street to slightly-cheaper-digs, we went to a hot spring. It turned out to be an oversized puddle with hot water in it, no problems there, you just roll up, jump in and no worries. Not a changing room in sight, or a ticket booth. It was kind of beat, but you know it’s in that good way. The next few days I stayed in crappy hostel and William took me around to see stuff. Batu caves, where the local Indian community have big festivities every year, Genting, where there’s a casino and some huge hotels and overpriced crapola (locals love the place, tourists either don’t know or don’t care) and always William had the good info on where to get the best food. We ate like kings, we did, all night long, it was one place after another. It was incredible. Food in Malaysia is always good to start out with, but with insider info it can’t be beat.

Monday rolled around, after an expensive and went-nowhere attempt at going out on Saturday (out of my league, out of my budget and the local girls can obviously smell a lack of money, damn man) I had lunch with two people I lived with in my uni days and split. By this point I’d had more than enough of KL, having had some empty days there to deal with, and was in need of something fresh. The three o’clock bus to Jerantut did not deliver.

Jerantut is the place to be if you want to get to Taman Negara, a prime old slice of rainforest. But having had a pretty big serving of that flavour in Indonesia, and having paid for it, I elected to skip this one – especially since it had been raining and nothing does more for the local leech community. The other thing you can do is get your connection onto the Jungle Railway, as the tourist industry calls it. The locals just call it the train, but I like to think we’re more poetic. It is part of the train line that runs from Singapore, up through the peninsula, into Hat Yai in Thailand and continues on to Bangkok. It branches off south of KL and goes up the west coast to Butterworth, and after Bangkok there are some five lines radiating away into the rest of Thailand. None of these cross the Thai border anymore – once upon a time, I hear, it crossed into Cambodia and into Vietnam and from there crawled up the coast into China, joining the vast network of trains there, which also link up with the trans-Siberian and eventually Europe. Once upon a time, therefore, you could travel by train all the way from Lisbon, Portugal, across Europe and Russia, down through China and Indochina, all the way to Singapore. War in Southeast Asia ended the existence of the trains in Vietnam and apathy has lead to Cambodia’s network falling apart. The French, God bless them, build one whole rail line in Laos, and it’s mere kilometres long.

The point is, if you want a train journey of any measure in Southeast Asia, you have really the one choice. And it’s the Jungle Railway. If only it passed through KL, if only there were clearer schedules about using it, if only there were more trains. I was pretty confused by it all to begin with, as my fact-finding mission to KL Central had yielded a bunch of confused looks. The night express trains were straightforward enough, but during the day? Local trains? Huh? Oh well, and consulted the guide book map. The closest point to KL where it looks convenient to get on is Jerantut, and hey, they have plenty of backpackers going that way. Cheap digs are to be found, I knew, but also I would have to endure the hard sell from the local guides. This I could handle, then leave in the morning. Jerantut is a real hang-dog town, a real nowhere. Small and unexceptional, I got some good food at the night market, had a chat to the locals working at the hotel, got the low down on what things were like there. The tourist industry was about the limits for most of them, and even then it was kind of a contact high situation, because Taman Negara was actually quite a ways off, they just happened to be the transport hub people had to negotiate.

And so I did, getting my gear together and setting off in the morning for the train station. The ticket to Wakaf Bharu cost all of 12 ringgit, and I would get there about ten that night. There would be a three hour wait in some pissant town. Not pleased about that, I still got to take the train. The first one that pulled up was really quite a nasty piece of work, bad seats and grimy. But hey, for the price? Could not complain. And I was moving by train again! Rejoice! Plus, the views really were all that, as the line rumbles over rivers and streams, through valleys and cuttings. It must have been a hell of an engineering feat to put this all together. Sadly, though, the evidence that it’s not really surviving is all too clear. 12 ringgit for a twelve hour trip? Doesn’t happen mate, not unless there’s a hardcore subsidy propping it all up. And there most surely is, and quite a healthy culture of overstaffing too. Every station had three to four workers who were doing very little, and on the train itself there were a handful of idle staff. This is where your tax dollars go, Malaysians, right here.

The time came to alight in the middle of nowhere, inexplicably. Why here? What the hell? Ah well, may as well make the most of it. I sniffed out an internet connection and sat glued to a keyboard for a few hours. I emerged, ate, got some chendol, and went back to the station. It was half an hour before my train was supposed to resume, but there was a train on the platform. I grabbed my bag and a fat foreigner leaned out the window and told me to hurry up, the train was leaving. Still confused about this, as I’d been told the train I was to get in half an hour was the only train during the day, I jumped on just as it pulled away. The ticket guy looked at my ticket and looked confused, and told me I had the wrong train. Oops. I could stay but I had to pay an extra two ringgits – horrors. This was the express, he explained. Where the fuck was this information that morning? Overstaffed and incompetent. Times like that I really get nostalgic for Japanese trains. Don’t we all?

So the show went on, the scenery was epic and the fat guy turned out to be Dutch. He had quite a right-wing lean to him, but since I could barely understand him it was kind of ok. He was entertaining enough, I guess. There were a few other tourists on the train, but I was content to stare out the window. Night fell and the station of our alighting drew closer, and as this happened the until-now idle train staff sprang into action. Where were we all going, they wanted to know. Oh no, don’t get off there, there’s a station closer to where you want. Sure, I said, confident that they were full of shit. Wakaf Bharu is nowhere special, but it is the closest stop to Kota Bharu. Not the station before, or even the one before that. Many people passing this way are going to the Perhentian Islands, and they are a boat and a bus from Kota Bharu, but I saw one couple get shanghai-d by a train dude into getting off two stops and a half-hour (at least) taxi ride from the dock. At that time of night the boat surely wouldn’t be running, so I figured he had it wired. Get them off at Tanah Merah, where his friend the taxi driver has them by the balls, and from there to their friend’s hotel near the docks where they get taken to a travel agent to buy tickets. All with commissions, of course, all flowing back to train guy.

I ignored them all, pretending not to understand when they told me to get off at the wrong place. Wakaf Bharu came and I jumped out. The taxi mafia were waiting, all in place for the daily orgy. They know when the train passes by and they wait for travellers to overcharge. My love of taxi drivers is famously non-existent, and this is the kind of shit I deal with that only makes it worse. Malaysia, for what it’s worth, has precious little of this business, and the tricky business on the train is especially rare. Getting scammed is almost unheard of, so I was taken aback to see it going on. After negotiating with the taxi guys – it was too late for the real bus, and this was always going to happen – we got a decent price and there were three of us, so it worked out. The guy did try and take us to the wrong place, but we sorted him out. He didn’t speak any English, so there wasn’t even that ‘that place is full / closed / dirty’ rap they usually spew out. He just tried to make us get out at the wrong place.

The right place was indeed right. A very nice option indeed. Friendly people, good crowd, a few too many mozzies, but workable. Kota Bharu by night is nothing remarkable, but neither is it by day. However, the night market is exceptional by any standards and we ate like kings of old, grabbing huge chunks of meat by the bone and smearing it all over our faces, all with our hands. Raucous good fun. I had a piece of chicken that was at least half the bird, plus curry, rice and some vegetable matter, all for five-fifty. Mind blowing stuff.

For various reasons I had to spend the next day in Kota Bharu, even though I really didn’t want to, but it turned out that I could have been stuck in worse places. This was all because I had done the dreaded pre-planning, a happening that only rolls around when there’s an even I need to be in a certain place at a certain time for. I was aiming to be on Ko Pha-Ngan for the full moon, apparently they have some kind of party, and I had plane tickets to Burma, but I would also need to get to Bangkok in enough time to get a visa sorted out. I did some figuring and it looked good enough on paper, good enough I supposed, and to pull it off without having to pay for a three month Thai visa or get the free one-month job extended would mean spending that one extra day in KB. So I had time to look around, the market there is big and busy and colourful, and I happened to be there on a day when they had a big culture demonstration. So that was good, and there’s hardly any tourists around. It’s a transit point into and out of Malaysia and a jumping off point to the Perhentians, but still not many of them were wandering around. The market was interesting enough, but smelled really strongly of fish, and the demonstration was a little put on. The MC guy was annoying as hell, he had the stereotype one-liner ready for every nationality, the same one you always hear, and to hear them reeled off with such practice was almost impressive. But not really. It was a cringe fest. The cultural bits were pretty cool, KB is the centre of Malay culture in Malaysia, and they’re also incredibly Muslim down there – I hadn’t seen so many headscarfs since Aceh.

The city was also where the Japanese invaded Malaya in the war, so there’s a museum dedicated to those times and the following occupation. It was fun to see the mis-translated Japanese in the English captions. I wondered if the Malay ones were as bad, or if the mistakes had crept in from translating the Malay into English. Either way, I didn’t point out the mistakes to the guy working there. He looked well bored with it all, and I didn’t expect much.

It was fun for the day, but I’m glad I didn’t have any more time to kill. For one, the mozzie problem in the dorm room was nothing short of epic, and sleep was a strange foreigner. In the morning I gleefully got up, packed, ate, and beat the rain to the bus station. Rain had been an issue and people had been stuck on the islands, the boats not up to travelling in such conditions, and even if I’d wanted to go I wouldn’t have made it. So nuts to that, the Thailand plan is in action. The local bus ran to the border town and I got off and made the crossing on foot, the first time I’d ever had to do such a thing.

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