Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kota Bharu, Malaysia

Signing in from Kota Bharu, the most Islamic of Malaysian towns apparently. Not much to say about the place as it has little of interest and I am just here before I go to Thailand. So what about my little stint in the oldest rainforest in the world?

Along with the sentence “I just see you as a friend”, Taman Negara will always be associated with disappointment in my mind. I was all hyped up about the place and ready to play at being Tarzan. I had planned to camp out in the jungle and wander about the vast national park that is Taman Negara (which I think translates as National Park). I would have too if not for rain and rangers.

Being stupid enough to choose the monsoon season as the best time to go camping, I suppose I deserved what happened or more precisely didn’t happen. On arrival I heard that most guided activities were cancelled due to the heavy rain and the consequent swelling of every river, pond and stream of the place. I was not concerned about this as I was in Ray Mears mode. I would bugger off and enjoy myself in the jungle. The Park Rangers had other plans. They insisted that I only do stuff that had a low likelihood of getting me swept away down the Tembeling river. This consisted of a 3 hour trot up a hill and that was it. No mention of a waiver could shake them. Bastards.

They were, of course, being thoroughly professional but this limited my scope of activities somewhat. They were also quite right as I found out when I sneaked down a path of a closed trail. Mud to my knees and the sight of a torrent across the path thankfully woke up the coward in me and I headed back for another night in the surreal guesthouse I had stayed before. This was in a small village across the river from the entrance of the park. It was decorated with hanging teddy bears and Sesame Street type murals, half of which extolled how much Allah was great. Just to make things worse the bloody place was all religious so no booze. I did not even have the consolation of getting buzzed by the river. I was painfully aware that the best bit so far had been the 3 hour boat ride up the river to get here. Weirdly enough, I saw more creepy creatures (leeches, scorpions, insects 10 times their regular, swattable size) at the jetty and at the guesthouse than in the jungle.

I grew disheartened and returned to Jerantut, the transport hub near the park so as to catch the night train to where I am now. During the afternoon a slow trickle of fellow would-be jungle trekkers joined me in my glum vigil. We decided to reflect upon the experience in the way most backpackers do. We got drunk.

This wasn’t an easy task as Jerantut is also very Muslim but we found a Chinese food stall that had the hop flavoured elixir of life. We got merry and swapped tales of the trail and argued politics. Then we got a shock as a promo team for Skol showed up. Too much time spent in British drinking holes means that I am familiar with the small squads of floozies who traipse bars in the hope of steering your drinking habits in a certain way but this was seriously incongruous as there was no other watering hole around. What with bus and train departures we ended up a half dozen being replenished in beer ( by that mean that they hovered around us and refilled our glasses as soon as we had drunk a couple of fingers) by 3 Chinese girls in ugly Skol dresses and being given free lighters on a infrequent basis. Our happy group created the only nightlife for a 50 mile radius. They eventually moved on but where to remains a mystery.

SO I am now in Kota Bharu and pondering my stay in Malaysia. See below.

It’s hard to get too analytical about this place. Compared to Indonesia it’s doing fine and this s a problem writing wise. Most of us can see what goes wrong with something but how it works when all is OK s trickier to ascertain. Malaysia is working without a doubt. The problems they face seem to be the same as in Western societies but with a twist. They publish English language papers here that, though heavily self-censored, give an inkling of how the locals think and what matters to them. From what I’ve read and seen it seems to be education, toilets and nudity.

The Times Higher Education Supplement has dropped the local unis in this year's happy world ranking exercise. This has caused much debate. Amusingly they had been rated artificially high the last time because whoever did the last review decided that the Chinese and Indian Malaysians at the faculties were foreign students. Now they have corrected this slightly racist oversight and the results are not as good. Add to this the problem of high graduate unemployment and you have a sort of national head scratching exercise going on.

The unemployed grads here suffer because of their poor English skills. This would seem weird to any visitor here as English is widely spoken. The problem is that the government imposed Bahasa Malayu 30 years ago as an assertion of national identity. It’s basically the same as Indonesian but without the usefulness. The Indonesians had to find a way of getting loads of diverse ethnic groups to communicate and wisely used a simple language to do so. The Malaysians did the same but without the need as English had been taught in schools here for a while. When they saw what Singapore was becoming and decided to do the same the eventually twigged that English was important and started re-using it to teach science and maths. However, this was to late for some and as a result there is a strange situation were people over 60 and under 25 speak pretty good English but a lot of highly educated Malays have become a lost generation out of misguided national pride.

The toilet obsession is partly because of World Toilet day. All the local politicos and even some royals (there are a fair few of them as several Malay States still have Sultans) have extolled the virtues of a clean bog. I am a bit supportive because, when you move beyond the jokes, 2 billion people without proper sanitation is somewhat of a crying shame these days and a deadly one at that.

The nudity aspect is not seedy but the result of the latest scandal here. A mobile phone video is circulating of a Chinese national being strip searched and forced to squat in a Police station. This has sent people overboard as it hits a few sensitive strings. Malaysia wants the money of the newly rich Chinese (who are everywhere by the way) but are fearful of an invasion by the shedloads who are not. The plod and customs tend to be a bit harsh with all Chinese and this brings up old problems. I was on a bus that was stopped by the fuzz for ID checks. The chappy with the machine gun got the first two people to present ID so I assumed I would have to present mine. The cop saw this and gestured to me to put it back as they were hunting for illegals and particularly the Sino type. It seemed pointless to me to just pick on the Chinese when they could have IDed everyone if only to appear fair.

The other reason this strikes a cord is that the press is using this incident as it highlights corruption. The police here are now made to wear badges saying they are against corruption. Low level graft usually indicates a problem that starts at the top but the journos can’t go there so they use this incident to have a pop at the state. Add the nudity element in a conservative country and it makes for a good story.

All this and what I have gleaned by talking to people is that Malaysians have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. They know that they are one of the most advanced countries in the area but they are fearful of being seen as backwards. On one slightly cupsprung occasion, I told my Malay drinking partner that the true sign of being a First World nation is when you don’t give a toss about what people of other countries think. This inferiority complex means that the visibly western traveler often encounters apologetic statements if anything is even a tad shabby. Particularly the bogs.

I should say that all is not rosy here. I did see some left behinds in KL and Penang but unlike Indonesia they were marginals. A few people clutching bagfuls of solvent and the odd skinny person with needle tracks around the elbows were all I saw of real destitution and this was unfortunately not an unfamiliar sight to my British eyes. I was a tad upset by the fate of the Orang Asli (the aboriginal people of the Malay peninsula). A lot of them now live in human zoos to be shown to tourists and the rest of them share the same problems as the Aboes in Oz. In a society that’s moving full speed ahead, a person versed in the ways of nature tends to translate as illiterate and unemployable.

However I am much more upbeat about this place than I was about Sumatra. This could be linked to an adjustment period for me but also because there is more to be cheery about. I did enjoy my time here and would recommend it as a place for a holiday though not to heavy drinkers. I know I have become slightly too used to be able to find an English speaker and to reliant on a good infrastructure but I will have lots of time to re-adapt to roughing it in other countries.

It won’t be the next one though as I am heading to Thailand, the backpacker’s heaven and spiritual home. I have mixed feelings about the Land of Smiles. I have always disdained it as too many people have been there and hence the place makes for common bar anecdotes. I also know that there must be a reason for so many people to rave about it and the plague of Thai green curries that have hit British pubs. By now I have met many a backpacker with ambitions to travel the world but ended up staying in Thailand except for the odd visa run. I will therefore use my Chinese language MP3’s to guard me against the wiles of the siren that is Siam. If this fails, I‘m sure the sight of a wigga beating on a bongo will compel me to head for Cambodia.

Next stop, somewhere in Thailand.

Selamat Jalan


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Melaka, Malaysia

Quick stay, quick post. I stopped in Melaka more for convenience than desire. The grapevine does not give it much credit in comparison to Penang and this is a tad unfair. It's pleasant and interesting enough but easily done in a day. All the same I made my time here a quiet one. I decided to forgo the dorms and get myself a room. No more trying to ignore snoring or glaring at drunk gappers until they shut up. Had myself some me time in a quiet garden. Back to the fray soon.

Melaka has got a more interesting story than the town suggest at first glance. That glance would make you believe this place is a small historic village surrounded by shopping malls. Chinatown is full of "antiques" shops and was weirdly reminiscent of the Petite France area of Strasbourg. Anyway, here's a quick lowdown on the place itself.

Melaka was probably settled aeons ago but people tend to attribute it's debut on the world scene around 1396 when Parmeswara, a Sumatran prince on the lamb (or in exile depending on the sources) popped up .The subsequent Sultans used its position on the Straits to make it a great trading center possibly by being able to attack all non-cooperative ships. I think the modern day pirates that roam these waters are working on the same principle. The sultans got quite rich this way and, like most nouveaux-riches, attracted attention. The Portuguese saw that this would benefit their counters in India greatly and asked for absurd trading privileges.They got told to fuck off and returned with ships and soldiers and nicked the place in 1511. They then themselves got fat on the profits until the Dutch decided they wanted a piece of the pie or more precisely the whole pie.

They managed to get it in 1641 and ensured they got a monopoly of trade on pretty much everything. They also built clocktowers and other buildings illsuited to the climate.They held on to it until 1795 when the Brits took over. Holland had just got conquered by the French so the Brits installed themselves maybe on the excuse that a nation that gets beaten by the French doesn't deserve far away spice counters. After Boney got a kicking at Waterloo, like all shortarses who get above themselves eventually do, the Nederlanske reckoned they should have it back. The Brits were unsure about this but the local garison reckoned it would happen and planned for a tidy handover by getting ready to blow up the Fort. Let the clogwearers build their own defences.

For some reason this didn't happen and the situation was resolved when the Brits agreed to trade the Sumatran port of Bencoolen for the place in 1824. This is the type of deal that always makes you popular with the locals and makes them feel empowered. However, just like the present, Melaka was never as much fun as Penang or Singapore so the Brits didn't do much to the place hence much less silly Victorian buildings and cricket pitches.

That was today's brief History lesson as I don't feel descriptive today. I have become very blase about the Chinese temples, Hindu temples and mosques that litter the Malay peninsula. Ditto Little Indias and Chinatowns. I sort of see them in the same way I see most churches back home. Nice but commonplace. I will soon leave for the Taman Negara for some real jungle time with the heat, mozzies and leeches that I am told are abundant at this time of year. I somehow doubt that a wormlike creature sucking my blood will ever seem commonplace so this should rekindle some curiosity in me.

Take care,


Friday, November 18, 2005


Singapore, the cleanest, most advanced country in SEA. As far as adverts for a city go, this doesn’t sound like much. I had apprehensions about this place and wasn’t sure if I was going to bother coming here but one thing changed my mind and that was Kuala Lumpur.

I tried to give Kuala Lumpur a chance but I decided that I would be better off in the place that it wants to become: Singapore. Kuala Lumpur is a working town with not much to offer for the budget dosser. I believe the name means “muddy confluent” and was developed in the late 19th Century as a mining town. It hasn’t had the succession of invaders that often bring history and most things of interest are post 1950. I do like the idea of setting up a capital in what was basically a swamp, like Washington DC. The power players at the time probably had a good idea of where politicians and bureaucrats deserve to live.

It’s a tad polluted though not to silly extremes like Jakarta. The main reason for this is probably wealth. Money means newer cars, better public transport and heavy industry being replaced by chaps in suits shifting data, having meetings and setting themselves “targets”. This makes for less pollution. I was intrigued by some of the things I saw but these will be better explained when I do my “report” on Malaysia. For the rest see below

The great attraction and showpiece for modern Malaysia is the Petronas towers. These twin towers are squatter than they look in the brochures and for some reason failed to impress me. Nice as they are, the planner for these erections didn’t have the casual visitor in mind upon drafting his blueprints. The public is only allowed a third of the way up to the skybridge and, at that height, you are still way below most of the other buildings of the business area. I reckon the real views are reserved for VIP clients though a part of me likes to believe they have set up an executive shag pad up there. If you’re not going to let the proles near the top you might as well go nuts, pick up design tips form James Bind films, and create the ultimate penthouse for yourself. It’s what I would do.

There is a nice green area to the South East of the city that I enjoyed strolling about. They even have padded lanes around a lake to soften the impact on the joints of the few joggers I saw there. There is an Islamic Arts Museum which was quite impressive next to the mosque but I particularly liked the kitchy Royal Malaysian Police museum. I also had very friendly and helpful guides in the guise of 2 coppers who, I discovered at the end, thought I was plod myself. They were actually relieved when I told them I was a plain old arrestable civvy as I had fired off a lot of questions about Azahiri, the Malaysian chap that got killed in Indonesia and was a bomb maker for the local Al-Quaeda franchise. They were coy about the extremist sitch over here and I think they were happy to find out that my take on their outfit was of no consequence.

Anyways, I have now made it to Singapore and I have mixed feelings about the place. Firstly I should state that the idea that Singapore is western is bollocks. No western city I have ever been in is this clean and orderly. This place make the Swiss look slovenly and carefree. What impresses me about this place is that I have seen some other towns in SEA and I cannot be but awestruck by what this place has become.

You have seen my views on Indonesia and Malaysia’s success does not astonish me that much. What does astonish me is how the hell does a place with less natural resources than Shropshire, an ethnically fractured population and no better-than-the-regional average in terms of education become a place where the Western backpacker feels as poor and scruffy as he really is? The weird thing is they didn’t even want to become a nation. They wanted to join the new Federation of Malaysia but were turfed out, possibly out of racist fears of the Chinese majority in Singapore. They were alone and weren’t too keen on the idea but they more than managed to get by.

The secret of this success is Lee Kuan Yew. This chap is like a local version of De Gaulle except that he was successful and deserves for more praise. He was essentially a dictator that held on to power because he was doing so well. He resigned in 1990 but is still Minister Mentor (I’ll admit that does sound a bit creepy) and a major player in this island’s politics. He used trade to get the cash and installed strict rules for practically everything so as to keep the place cohesive. He wasn’t too keen on self expression or freedom in general and he is the chap that gave Singapore its deserved rep for being slightly oppressive on petty matters like littering.

For all the hype, this place doesn’t feel like a sunny setting for 1984. The rules are easy to observe and done so by common consensus and habit. I’ve been walking around the place for the past 2 days and haven’t seen one cozzer. The youngsters here are a bit on the defensive about their society and its perception abroad. The main source of criticism I have heard about this place came from older people, particularly Indians. I astonished a few of them when I mentioned that foolish Yank a few years ago who went on a campaign to escape a caning. I told them the stupid bastard should have checked up the local penal code before going spraypainting and deserved what he got. A lot of the youngsters believe that Westerners automatically supported his little quest to dodge the rattan.

What bothers me about this place is paradoxically what I admire about it. It’s nice but it’s not my type of place. There is slightly too much focus on trade and success. Shopping seems to be a quasi religious activity here and there are now signs for bloody, bastard, cunting Christmas all over the place. The historical sites are nicely done up but a bit too much. I was trying to find out more about the unbelievable fuck-up that was the fall of Singapore to the Japs in WW2 but the best I could find was some silly interactive “experience” within the old command bunker.

Also, this place is softening me up. It has occurred to me that I won’t be seeing this type of infrastructure and order for most of Asia so I am picking up bad habits such as using tap water to brush my teeth, walking about without a medkit and actually expecting traffic to behave in a predictable manner. The only thing I have to really concentrate on is not chucking my fagbutts away willy nilly. Doing this could result in the best part of my traveling budget feeding the coffers of Singapore’s govt.

Also, this is another place where chubbing up is likely as the food here is very good. This makes the high presence of KFC’s and other big fast food chains all the more bewildering and annoying.

Next stop, Melaka.

Take care,


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Welcome to the Jungle, we got fun and games, as the song goes. Tanah Rata is a small town based around one high street. The playground of weekend idlers since colonial times, it is building chalets and apartment blocks in some attempt to become the Malaysian version of Chamonix. Many of the ramblers here are Malaysian and therefore the guesthouses do not have the usual colonial/western ghetto atmosphere that pervades such places elsewhere on the trail.

As the town itself is nothing to write about, I won't go further but I'll take you, as I took myself, to the jungle. I should be honest and state that the word "jungle" is a bit of a misnomer though it is the one everyone uses around here. It has got the sounds, smells and sights of a tropical jungle but, at 1500 metres plus above sea level, it hasn't got the brutal steamroom heat. This means that all I have to deal with is my shameful lack of fitness. That and the frequent downpours.

The relatively clement temperature would not have been easily guessed from my appearance after a ridge scramble. I was sweating like a cardinal in a schoolboy’s changing room within a few minutes of hauling myself up wonderfully steep and slippery "paths". There are no proper walking maps of the place so you have to guesstimate your position with a silly tourist attraction map (used mostly to indicate tea plantations and butterfly farms) and badly scribbled notes of a quick interrogation of locals in the know. These included "After the shed with the dog, walk through the person's garden and hop over the padlocked gate". Once you find the path you are often confronted with several options that neither map nor chap mentioned. At this point you have to use landmarks if possible but more often than not a sort of blind faith in your navigational instincts.

The way to see if you haven't seriously messed up is to look for tracks of people like you. The constant rain means that the distinctive footprints of walking boots do not linger long. If you find some you are probably on the correct path. That or you are following someone as stupid as you. Once you get over the stupid fear that you are going to lose yourself on a mountain less than 2 kilometers away from town you can start to enjoy the place.

The jungle is a place of sensory overload. You are constantly hearing hoots, howls, clicks, crashes and buzzes. Like most humans I look for patterns in what I hear and at one point I was convinced some animal was giving me the first few bars of “ When the saints go marching in”. Whatever it was shut up when I whistled the next bits. You also hear what you can’t see scurrying away from you.

I haven’t seen any animals except for insects and birds but I did hear stuff legging it away from me. By jungle standards humans are pretty big and I guess that translates as “it can eat you” for the fauna. Then again, the fact that half the flora seems to be rotting means you hear a lot of stuff crashing to the ground. Things also move for no apparent reason up there. All the leaves on a tree will be still except for a couple that quiver frantically. A cluster of lianas will be scenically fixed except for one that looks like Tarzan has just used his famous commuting tool. All this was glimpsed as snapshots by little me as I focused a lot on the ground to avoid slippery roots, puddles and mudholes. Most movement is detected through peripheral vision and as a result my head was darting around like a canary.

For a rotting mess the jungle smells quite nice and strangely familiar, like a girl’s bathroom. The recent trend among women of buying cosmetics replete with aloe, guava and anything else that is vaguely linked to a rainforest has removed any exotic aspects of these scents for me. All in all the whole thing was pleasant on the hooter. Except for me. What I smelled of was sweat and DEET. For some reason I decided that the cute 50%, smells-lemony-fresh stuff I usually baste myself with was probably to wimpy for hardcore jungle insects so I went for the 98% stuff that smells awful and can melt most types of plastic. All of which probably followed the vast amounts of liquid my skin was generating downwards so probably it gave the most protection to my boots. No mozzie will approach my footwear now. Then again neither will anything else.

The combination of sensory input and climbing enduced endorphins gave me a strange high. I like the organic feel of the place and went all hippyish. I also went foolish as I indulged in a downhill run just for the sake of it until my brain kicked in and reminded me that I was alone and this was a place where a broken leg could prove a slight problem. To dispel the hippy thoughts my brain was helped by Mother Nature itself.

On some of the paths I chanced upon big plastic sheets strung up on branches or propped up with sticks. As I was still in Flower Kid mode I tut-tutted and pondered the tendency of man to despoil nature and why are we so harmful and yadda yadda yadda. Right up to the moment I heard thunder. The evils defilers of Mother Nature morphed into kindly souls as I realize someone had thought of rigging up places to shelter on the path. Most of these are quite steep and can become small streams when the rain hits. Not the time to be a scramblin’.

I must confess I really like it here and am reluctant to head to Kuala Lumpur. This is a great place for relaxation and contemplation. Actually, being stuck for an hour under a plastic sheet with a wet pack of cigarettes was the real catalyst for contemplation but I found myself pondering what was happening in France and have developed a strange obsession with it.

The next part is not travel related in any way and more an attempt to gather my thoughts but I can’t see a reason why this blog just has to be limited to musings on the places that I visit. Also it’s pissing down and I have got time to kill. You have been warned.

That being said, I reckon a lot of this was brought one by my surroundings as I am in a society that seems to have found a way to make multi-ethnicity work. The 3 main groups of Malaysia, the Malays, Indians and Chinese get along reasonably well and all have played a role in this country’s development. Like elsewhere, there must be cretins who have decided to hate one group or the other but it is not apparent. It’s also hard to see if any of the groups can be called dominant. Like most good things, this state of affairs is not an accident and took a lot of effort.

In 1969, racial tensions amongst the groups exploded in riots. People were killed, women were raped and stuff was burned. The government then decided to address some of the grievances and in a way pioneered affirmative action. The Chinese diaspora had had their usual commercial success and the Malays were resentful. Programs to give more of this wealth to the Malays were set up and the hatred decreased as the prosperity increased. In the early seventies, a nation not yet 2 decades old had understood what the French government in the 21 century still has not twigged; that when the reality and the theory don’t add up, you ditch the idea.

French Dogma on its ethnic minorities is that they don’t exist. The French Ideal absorbs all in its greatness. If a French national, you are part of the Republican Pact with its rights, privileges and responsibilities and this supersedes all ethnic and cultural factors. As this is the law it must be real. Therefore the kids setting the suburbs alight are just disenfranchised Frenchmen who happen to be of immigrant origin. In America people use their ethnicity proudly in conjunction with their American status. Many Brits describe themselves as Asian of Afro-Caribbean. Here in Malaysia the differences are obvious and reflected in language, writing, religion, food etc…. France maintains all are equal and the same.

The problem is that this happy notion has no connection with reality. A young man born in France of Algerian parents will be considered French on paper. He will have been told of his ancestors the Gauls, had to sit through “Instruction Civique” and, depending on his age, he might have done military service ( or skived out of it). All this is supposed to make him the same as someone called Jean-Claude and by law no one can treat him any differently. However, this kid knows that when looking for a job, an internship, a flat or when dealing with the fuzz he is not Jean-Claude. He is called Abdel, Mohammed or Youssouf and for the people on the other end of these encounters that makes all the difference, as he knows too well.

France has got a big problem with racism. The National Front is a frighteningly real contender in political terms particularly during presidential elections. However, when officially there is no such thing as race it makes it a tad tricky to address the problems that come with it. The fuckwits who are happily turnings schools into bonfires are probably a mixed lot but the majority of them have parents that were born on a different continent. I sincerely doubt they feel French and if they have visited the country of their ancestry they probably know they are different from that too. They are stuck in an identity crisis with no attachment to anything in particular.

People in France tend to focus on the monstrosities that are the “banlieues” as the main culprit and I understand why. The French state created the HLM (subsidized housing) after the winter of 1954 where homeless people, some of whom were in full time jobs, froze to death. This was a good idea but some bright spark then had the notion that stashing the poorest sections of society in high rises miles away from anything that can be called a town was the best way to go about this. Bad ideas reach their full potential faster than good ones and soon there were thousands of these places sprouting up around France. A lot of the designs of these places are of the silly drug-addled “visions of the future” that the sixties are infamous for. The happy visions of the bong smoking crowd quickly turned into dystopic nightmares once unemployment set in. Particularly as some other genius reckoned that the new immigrants from the former colonies would really love these places.

In sense that chap had a point. The people who moved to France for work were prepared to take whatever job and housing was going. They knew the ones who would really benefit were their kids and were ready to make sacrifices. It didn’t pay off and their kids are no better off than they were in terms of social mobility.

What really ticks me off about this is that there is some sort of mental block about this amongst the French elite. It’s not like it’s a new problem. In 1983, “La Marche des Beurs” and a subsequent anti-racism movement raised these issues. At the time they were asking for equal treatment and got it, at least on paper. Somehow, substandard schools, police harassment and shitty housing were passed off as a class problem that just happened to affect immigrants disproportionately.

The answer is simple and has been tried successfully by a range of countries ranging from Malaysia, the USA and South Africa: positive discrimination. It is unpalatable and forces us to face the harsh truth that the societies we live in do not reflect our ideals but it is necessary in some cases. The ANC in South Africa knew that if all you changed was the theory of inequality but left all the good stuff in the hands of the white folk, there would be bloodshed. I doubt they liked the idea that Black people need quotas to succeed but they knew that something had to be done. If you have a stake in society you are less likely to try and destroy it. It’s all about facing the facts.

In France, the kids of post-war immigrants are discriminated against regardless of what the textbooks say. A lot of them are getting shafted because of their ethnicity. You need to counterbalance this by boosting some of them for the same reasons. This should not be too much of a stretch for French society. The ubiquitous presence of “piston” (the term used for obtaining favours, such as jobs, through connections) ensures that people moving up for reasons other than merit is hardly unfamiliar and should not be too hard a pill to swallow. Race politics have to be based on the reality of the ground. It’s too sensitive for politicians to dick around with creeds and lofty ideas about how fucking great the French political framework is.

It can be said that the sitch is not bad enough to warrant these kinds of measures. After all, what is happening is not interethnic violence or pogroms. The rioters tend to attack symbols of the French State and its servants. Cars just happen to be there and are easily set alight. They also bring the fire service which if attacked brings the plod and that is who the scrotes really want to have a pop at. My concern is that for every dickhead that torches some poor sod’s car (and that sod will be poor as most cars are torched in the banlieues themselves) there is another dickhead getting his National Front membership card. It’s more insidious but in a way just as dangerous.

I should say that I am not particularly sympathetic to the morons who are having their balaclava barbecue fun. It’s just that I’m not surprised. The ultimate inspiration and idea of success for a lot of these fuckwits is Snoop Dog or NTM (aka: Nique Ta Mere, ie: Fuck your Mother). Things are bad when you think that the place to be is Compton and you start trying to change your neighborhood into that particular sun-kissed paradise. Also, bored teenagers will get into mischief regardless of social status and boredom, along with drugs, is one thing that the banlieues have in abundance.

The other problem is the French reflex of looking to the state for reliance. The voicepieces of the rioters urge the state to intervene. As you can see above I tend to agree but I also think it’s unlikely to happen in a meaningful way. I’m a bit bemused that the Molotov crowd blame the state for their ills and then want the same apparatus that’s been fucking them over to give them a hand. Self-reliance movements are virtually inexistent in France. The closest there is to an identity based self-help movement is militant Islam and don’t we all want a bit more of that? This leaves the state in charge of changing things and challenging dogmas is no small task in the Hexagone. I guess they can either start affirmative action or training more cops and I wouldn't bet on the former.The sad thing is that the only political chappie that has toyed with the idea affirmative action is a slimy little creep that goes by the name of Sarkozy. And now I agree with him.Yerk, yerk, yerk.

That pretty much it on the subject and it’s a lot. It makes for a long post but if I’m going to go on a rant I might as well go for it. It’s also long as it was written in 2 parts. I stopped halfway through as a bunch of teenagers came into the internet café. I am guessing that their parents are happily walking or eating scones and jam (apparently a tradition here) and Malaysian teenagers don’t like hanging around with their folks while on holiday any more than Brit ones. So they annoyed me.

They started some online game and were already irritating me with their chatter when they decided to truly fuck me off by putting one the latest Gangsta Rap bollocks. As I looked at their little heads bobbing up and down in rhythm to whatever spiel about ho’s and homies was playing I had a little revelation about this place. I realized how close to the West Malaysian Society is becoming as their teenagers gave me the same urge to bitchslap them as the ones back home. True progress. I buggered off to another place after a coffee and fag break.

Signing off now to go and grab a curry and a beer (how exotic).

Next stop, Kuala Lumpur.

Take care,


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Georgetown has managed to give me the most exercise I have had in weeks, mainly as it's a fantastic place to walk around and gawp. It's an old British colonial trading post founded by some nutter called Francis Light seemingly on the basis that he could and he had cannons. The town centre is mainly composed of two story building with porch and pillars that could have been merchandise counters . A Dutch couple told me it reminded them of Havana though I doubt Havana has it's own Chinatown or Little India.

After indulging myself with the rare delights of hot water (amazingly it's actually drinkable) I went for a walk and haven't really stopped since except for a few beer induced chill-outs. The fact that I am constantly strolling around is probably a good thing as the chow here is great. Malay food is similar to Indonesian food except that here there is loads of seafood to munch, The Chinese and Indians also have their stalls set up at night and I have taken to hovering near other the local patrons like some deranged nutritionist until I find something that looks tasty and track down the right stall. Podging up seems highly likely here despite the constant meandering so I will soon sod off for some trek time in the Cameron Highlands.

Penang is a somewhat brutal contrast to Sumatra. The infrastructure is no worse than any European city and it's a hive of wealth and activity. What dossing I saw is the type associated with leisure and not unemployment. Like a lot of Malaysian cities it's highly diverse and seems to have found the knack of ensuring the various groups get along. The areas called Chinatown and Little India are distinct without being segregated and they intermingle quite well when boozing (I'll admit the Malay Muslims are a little less keen on this). The place is chock a bloc full of Chinese Temples, Hindu Temples and mosques as well as the odd church and they all conspire to get your attention. I still get the Muezzin wake up call but now I can add the odd blast of music from the Hindu temples. The Chinese prefer to go olfactory by torching a few tons of incense in their places of worship.

One odd thing is the number of transvestites that lurk in the corners of the drinking area. I am starting to wonder if this is a way to get around strong taboos on homosexuality in SEA countries. Either that or they are a particularly kinky lot. There are a lot of weird Malays about in bars but they are somewhat familiar as they don't differ much from their bar-pillar counterparts in the West though they are a bit more friendly.

I have also hit the backpacker trail in its youthful and overdeveloped sense. Basically, you lodge and sort out the essentials (travel, laundry, afternoon drinking) in small ghettoes within the large towns and selected beauty spots that span SEA. From now until the Chinese border I can choose to speak only English and mingle mainly with westerners if I so wish. It's basically Fresher's Week spread over half a dozen countries. At this point any pompous declamation that "I am not a tourist" will be an obvious lie. Backpackers in this neck of the woods are essentially the same as the socks,sandals and sunburn crowd except they spread their budget over a longer period of time and tend to be younger.

They are also invariably clutching the Unholy Bible that is Lonely Planet that strangely enough I have pretty much consigned to the bottom of the rucksack. It' s easy and preferable from now on to rely on recommendations as you can invariably find someone that came from where you are going next. As it is I will treat Malaysia and Thailand as a sort of holiday within a holiday. It basically comes down to the amount of effort you have to put in just to get around and in these countries it is virtually none. It's time to relax and get used to hearing "Redemption Song" ad nauseum. I might even buy a T-shirt with some humorous slogan and a place name. I will not however, wear those stupid shorts that try to be trousers nor will I get anything braided. This I swear.

Next stop, Tanah Rata

All the best,


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Georgetown, Pulau Penang, Malaysia

Just got here by ferry after a mercifully brief stay in the town of Medan. Whereas Danau Toba is a siren gently whispering in your ear you to stay in Indonesia, Medan is a urine stained tramp screaming at you to get the fuck away and fast. Medan might be the Indonesian word for Barry.

There is a futile quest among backpackers to "discover the real country" in the places they visit. To really do so would be like a self-inflicted curse. Medan, in many ways, is the reality for millions of Indonesians; a dirty, heavily polluted sprawl with little to offer to visitors and where the abject poverty is not scenic and rural but made the more obscene by the ostentatiousness of the very few Indonesians who are getting rich. The rural exodus currently taking place in Indonesia means that this will be oh-so real for more and more people. Countries are never like the postcards. The problem is that postcard Indonesia is shrinking whereas the grim bits are not. The "real" country might be something you'd wish you'd left undiscovered.

One sign of the growing wealth disparity in Indonesia is the size of the wad of cash that expats and backpackers carry. ATM's have made it to Indonesia but they mainly dispense 50 000 Rupiah notes (about $5). These are a bastard to change as most dealings are done with 1000 Rupiah notes. When buying a pack of ciggies and some bottles of water with a 50k note I often had to wait for change as the stall owner rustled up what cash they had amongst his family. The result is that you accumulate big wads of greasy notes unless you do a big shop. I doubt many Indonesians have access to a bank account except those for whom 50000 is chicken feed.

My perspective on the country should be taken with a pinch of salt. The last time I was here it was shortly after the late nineties currency crash and I had been mainly in Java whereas this time I focused on Sumatra. That being said, the change I have seen leads the tone for this report of sorts. Several years of economic doldrums have taken a heavy toll on the place. The amount of people under the poverty line has sky-rocketed and whatever infrastructure had developed has started to decay. Corruption is rampant and seems to be the rare growth industry in the country.

However, all the above are in the realm of stats and news. What really worried me was a subtle change in outlook of the people I talked to. On my first visit I found folk a bit stunned by their yo-yoing currency but they still saw themselves as the inhabitants of a burgeoning Asian tiger. They were optimistic and ambitious. I met many who told me of what they hoped to become, what education they were getting for themselves and they seemed generally confident. The feeling I get now is of anxiety and fatalism. The massive increase in the price of fuel is seen as another calamity to befall them. The hope seems to have gone and the future is now something to be feared instead of welcomed. It was this feeling that worried me the most.

What the future holds for Indonesia is not really for me to say but I'll give it a shot anyway. From what I can work out the tea leaves are not looking good for this archipelago. Malaysia and Thailand have pulled themselves out of the slump and China is racing full stream ahead. Indonesia isn't doing so well. The real problem is that it might not be allowed to. From the look of things Indonesia is getting fucked over and this is only the foreplay.

Western companies have already got themselves sweetheart deals on Indonesian natural resources and the Chinese are moving in fast. This has not really benefited the country as a whole. The only evidence of real investment I saw were mobile phone networks. But these are reasonably cheap to set up and rewards are quick. The big danger is that Indonesia might become a very poor country with lots of natural resources and a bounty of cheap labour. This is probably the worse possible situation to be in. It can develop into a perverse economic reality where democratic and economic progress are not in the interest of many powerful players. The status quo will be too profitable. China is already considering shifting its textile industries to Indonesia to get around EU quotas. Sweatshop time.

As for a lot of countries, what might make this possible is corruption and Indonesia is a world champion in the brown envelope game. Also, one of the big power brokers in Indonesia, the army, is seriously bent as well as being vicious. An expat told me an interesting story that probably says a lot of that particular bunch. 3 years ago, in a town a few miles south of Medan, the police nicked a soldier dealing weed. This was their monopoly so they were not too chuffed with the guy. Unfortunately his mates got wind of this and the local troops showed up at the nick with all their toys and started shooting. Several plod were killed and the tension spread across Sumatra between green and blue. Megawati had to fly in and sort things out. I googled this to see if anyone had gotten tried for this. Zilch. This is not the kind of power that is relinquished voluntarily. To make things worse, the president has just asked the army to take over anti-terrorism ops as the police have had no joy on the latest Bali bombings. Guess what methods they are going to use.

All this sounds grim and hopefully I am dead wrong but it's difficult not to see the poverty and wonder how the fuck this happens and what are the chances of things getting better. The NGO workers from Aceh I met seemed confident but they work from a very low baseline upwards. Even then, I have heard stories of NGO one-upmanship and stupid end-of-budget spending. One guy told me of clinics from different outfits built side by side whereas 30 miles away some refugees are still in tents and medical help is inexistent. This is probably a result of the glut of money after the Tsunami and public pressure to show results but I guess and hope that for every fuck-up there are several success stories.

From a personal level, Indonesia was a training course of sorts. In all fairness I pretty much legged it through Sumatra and did not really get to know the place. However, this is not a South East Asia jaunt as I have done parts of this area before, albeit in a piecemeal way. China and Central Asia are the biggies on this little "Jakarta to Jerusalem" jaunt so I can't spend too much time faffing about on the backpacker classics. Tempus fugit and pecunia hitches a ride so choices have to be made.

It has helped me get back into the swing of things. I am definitely getting older and my adjustment period seems longer than before but I'm pretty much there now. We all tend to lead our lives to a pattern and mine now consists of hunting down guesthouses, working out my next stop, choosing what way I should pack my rucksack and mild anxiety when eating from roadside stalls. I have by now mastered the squat toilet and am used to dealing with the touts. The hustle and the hassle are not news anymore.

On that note I have found out that generally accepted wisdom is often bollocks. It seems that the most used method of dealing with touts is to smile sheepishly and plod on to your destination or accept that you are going to get stung. This is to avoid unsightly clashes of cultures and makes the traveler's life easier if a bit awkward. As all compromises it tends to be a crap method. I have accidentally discovered a great way to start bargaining. I was getting off a bus and the becak (a sort of mongrel offspring of a moped and a phone box) drivers made the surge towards the white guy in pack-hunter way. Arms were outstretched to grab my bag but probably to lay claim to me instead of theft. I was somewhat tired and grumpy and as I felt my bag being tugged away from me I found myself barking "back off" at high volume and probably a couple of octaves lower than the locals are used to. I then witnessed a fishlike group movement to create a safe circle away from me. Maybe the adage that anglo-saxon languages are good for imposing authority (lion-tamers use english or german as the guttural nature of these lingoes seems to work better with animals) is true or maybe they started to see me as an angry, confused and somewhat large creature and decided to step back but I used that pause to get an sort of auction going on the price of a lift into town. I had been told the real price by an expat so I didn't get stupid and callous over it but it was an interesting experiment.

Anyway, I'm in Penang now and I am impressed so far. Report will come soon.

Take care,


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tuk Tuk, Pulau Samosir, Danau Toba, (Tuk Tuk, Samosir Island, Lake Toba)

Tuk Tuk is a small resortish place on the island of Samosir on Lake Toba, apparently the biggest lake in South East Asia. It’s a bit of a cop out from the backpacker thingy but, due to a dearth of visitors, still backpackerishly cheap. The people here are Batak Christians which means no muezzin. The alarm clock of the ummah is put on snooze here. Also, this is the first time since I have been in Indonesia that I have not heard traffic. Sheer bliss.

After getting here I had a “slap myself on the forehead” moment. I managed to forget my Indonesian language book on a bus and therefore I can introduce myself and my family and can greet someone at the airport but no more. Very useful indeed. I also learned a valuable lesson in overcomplicating things. I was feeling a bit dodgy since I got here and could not work out what I had. I excluded Malaria and Dengue but that just made me even more paranoid. Add the Delhi belly and I was soon rifling through my Traveler’s health guide in all seriousness, somehow convinced I had caught something horrible and my mild symptoms were just the initial stage of something that would culminate with a worm eating its way through my eyeballs. I was drinking gallons of water so I had ruled out dehydration. It took me a week to realize that I was not replacing the salt in my system. Once I had twigged that I got some salt and gave it a go. Felt better ever since. Truly, truly stupid.

The way here was slightly less fun as I took a more expensive bus. The driver understood that air conditioning has several different settings so I had to wear a jacket but no thermals. They also had a video that played some Bollywood action films that the Indonesians enjoy. Unfortunately they also had a good sound system that they used constantly. Indonesian pop is not the worse thing in the world but it comes close so I rigged up my earphones with some tissue for makeshift earplugs. I understand the really expensive buses have Karaoke systems, though why that is a selling point is beyond me. The bus made much fewer stops than the last one I took and the bulk of these were religious.

It’s interesting to be in a Muslim country during Ramadan. In the west most people know a few Muslims and know about the custom of fasting but it is often just another trait we assign to some of our acquaintances. What is strange is seeing everyone wait for the official sunset to have a sip of water or light up. The oneness of it all is unfamiliar to me as the only time I have participated in such behavior is at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The Muslim concept of Ummah is much more tangible here though still difficult for me to grasp. On the way here I added a lie to what are now 3 little lies about me that I find useful. I claimed I was a Christian.

Indonesians are used to people of different faiths and used to variations in the strength of these beliefs. What is strange for them is someone who does not believe in anything. The language barrier also prevents profound analysis about the human instinct to generate cosmologies so when asked if I was a Christian (which they presume most westerners are) I have started to answer yes. They usually ask if you are Protestant or Catholic but one chap threw me and asked “what kind?” I believe that good lies should be close to the truth (makes them easier to remember) so I answered that I was Church of England. I then had to explain Henry the 8th, the reformation and Renaissance religious politics to this chap. Slightly trickier than greeting a friend at the airport.

The other two lies are also benign but make my life easier. When asked I tell Indonesians that I am gainfully employed. The economic situation here is dire and most people are struggling to make ends meets. When they have a job they hang on to it for dear life. To tell them that I packed in a job to sod off traveling would be like gloating so a bona fide desk monkey I am. The other bollocks that I often claim is that I have a fiancée. Useful all around but particularly in Pulau Samosir.

Batak Christians are not allowed to marry within their own clan and these are quite extensive as well as being geographically concentrated. As a result the local girls are keen to catch husbands from outside the community and especially rich western ones. It’s very ego boosting here as you sometimes have young women flock to you and tell you that you are handsome. However it’s not in a sordid “me love you long time” way but more a keenness to demonstrate that they would make good spouses. It makes for great table service. As I am not in the market I simply claim that I am engaged and feel elevated at the look of disappointment on their faces. For some reason this can lead to an invitation to sing. Mine is not to reason why.

For those who are looking for a wife this might be a good place to go hunting. One thing I have noticed is that the local women raise wonderfully well behaved sprogs, particularly infants. In the west, a baby in a confined space (church, waiting room, airplane) is a guarantee that your eardrums are going to suffer. Here they might start to sound off but are efficiently hushed by their mums. We have much to learn from these people.

Pulau Samosir is a very nice place to walk, scramble and swim. Though suffering form the same economic downturn as the rest of Sumatra, there is less hucksterism around. Even the touts are mellow and shy in their approach. It could be the Batak mentality but I suspect something else. Magic mushrooms are legally available here and on offer everywhere. So is weed but the local lads seem to consume most of the stash themselves. Unsurprisingly I have declined the offer of both. If I am going to be wary of the food I certainly am not going to throw caution to the wind when it comes to psychotropic drugs.

This place is actually a resting hole for expats and well-off Indonesians though there are less and less of those. The peninsula of Tuk-Tuk could probably deal with a 1000 visitors but there seems to be at most a 100 here. There are plenty of abandoned construction sites around. It seems that local entrepreneurs believed the “if you build it, they will come” adage and got punished for it. This place does show starkly the economic problems of Indonesia today. I will elaborate on this on my last post in this country.

Grub wise I have just had the chance to taste a suckling pig prepared Batak style. I have met a bunch of French expats from Banda Aceh, which is strongly Muslim, and they rustled up a pig. It seems they had a hankering for schwein that is hard to satiate in Aceh. One of them also sorted out my ferry tickets to Malaysia for me. I was not looking forward to finding a way across the straits on Eid al Fitri so I am quite relieved he could sort it out with a phone call.

Next stop is Penang, Malaysia

Selamat Malam