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



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