Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Christmas on the Malaysian Peninsula - Chapter 20

I'm going make this chapter short because to be quite frank not too much happened during our time on the Malaysian Peninsula. If the truth be told it felt a little boring after the two months we'd just had. Okay, if I'd flown straight to Malaysia from England having not experienced anything else then my perception would have been totally different. In that sense I guess that you could say that I'd been spoilt by what came before.

As the ferry arrived in Malaysia our expectations were high. So much anticipation of what a new country could bring. Our excitement was further increased when the immigration officer came to us on the ferry to stamp our passports rather than us going to them upon our arrival on land. This was a new experience for me and new experiences were what I live for.

Our first port of call was George Town the state capital of Penang named after the British king George the third. The British influence in Malaysia was instantly recognisable. The cars drove on the left hand side of the road for a start. Mind you, in Indonesia the traffic was so chaotic that I was left unsure which side of the road the cars were supposed to be driving on. In fact that last sentence sums up the distinct difference that I immediately experienced when arriving in Malaysia. Everything seemed far more orderly, far wealthier, and consequently far less interesting. After only a few days there I was craving the chaos of Indonesia. One thing was for sure I wasn't going to find it in Singapore. I would have to wait for Thailand for the chaos to return.

In Indonesia I hadn't really liked the food too much. I used to be a fussy little bleeder back then. I'd practically existed for two months on chips or fries if you are American (kentang goreng) and biscuits. In George Town the choice of food was much better. This was down to the fact that there was a collision of cultures there (mainly Chinese and Muslim). I'd long been a fan of Indian food and Indian food could be found in abundance. Also market stalls selling a whole array of cheap food lined the streets in every direction. It was a food lovers paradise.

A few days in George Town filling our faces with delicious grub was enough though. It was now December and we were on hunt for a nice place to spend Christmas together. If there were no external influences I would have preferred Christmas in Thailand really, but after Malaysia we were all going our separate ways. The Brummie brothers had already left us to go and cause chaos in Thailand, Andy was off back to Australia and Paul and Brit would leave for Thailand in the new year. 

We caught a bus to the Cameron Highlands some 243 km away. Once again this had been highly recommended to me by my sister. What I didn't really take into account was the sheer size of the Cameron Highlands, which were in fact around about the same size as Singapore. It seems like Singapore is the same size as a lot of places. Not too dissimilar to Wales in this respect. I've lost count of how many times I've asked somebody how big a place is, only for them to say "Oh, it's about the same size as Wales." They must use Singapore as a similar indicator of relative measurement in Asia. Anyway, I mustn't digress, the fact was that the Cameron Highlands were far bigger than I expected and we didn't have enough time to see them properly. We elected to use the town of Tanah Rata as a base.

The Cameron Highlands are littered with hill stations and tea plantations which we had good intentions of visiting during our time there. As often is the case though we met some really good people in the hostel and apart from a few short walks we did little else but party. Once again, we were young so I make no apologies. Anyway, even if we didn't explore the Highlands to the full we did have a good time and met some great people. On our last night there, as the beers were flowing, a bunch of us made a decision that we would head to Melaka to spend Christmas together. Some of the others had been there before and assured us that we'd like it.

Strangely enough Tanah Rata was the first place that I had ever seen a bar solely dedicated to karaoke. This seemed to be the chief source of entertainment there. Given the fact that I am probably the worst singer that I have ever heard. I successfully managed to divert the others attention away from this type of establishment.

Kuala Lumpur was next up on our whistle stop tour of the Peninsula. I've been there several times over the past few years and I can honestly say that I have very little recollection of anything that I saw when I was there the first time around in December 1993. I can only assume that we stayed in the China Town area because this is where travellers generally stay, and I had a few pangs of recognition the last time I was there in 2012. This feels weird to me, I really wish that I could share at least one memory with you.

It was around about this time that I'd received news from England that my granddad was ill and probably only had a few months to live. I spent much of time trying to write him a perfect eulogy. I'm pretty sure that I did this whilst sat under the air conditioning unit in my cheap room in KL. This turned out to be a poem about a mystical mint imperial tree which my granddad used to take us to when my sister and I were kids. My granddad told us that mint imperials (sweets/candy) grew there. He would then secretly plant some mints under the tree, where my sister and I would find them, much to our glee. It was a beautiful memory.

My informants were right, I instantly fell in love with our next destination Melaka. Over the past five centuries the city had been ruled by the Chinese, the Portuguese, The Dutch and the British. Not too good for the locals at the time I imagine but great for modern day visitors. The influence of all these different cultures was evident throughout the city in the food, architecture, the people and, well just about everything really. I loved that many of the buildings were pink or dark red in colour, it definitely added character to the place.

Legend has it that the city was founded by Parameswara, the last King of Singapuru (later known as Singapore). As the story goes, Parameswara was out on a hunt and stopped by the Malacca River to refresh himself. As he stood by a Melaka (Indian gooseberry) tree he witnessed one of his hunting dogs being so startled by a mouse deer that it fell in the river. He took this as a sign of the weak overcoming the powerful and decided to build the capital of his new kingdom there. He named it Melaka after the tree. I must admit that when I heard this story I was intrigued to know what a mouse deer looked like. The name turned out to be literal. An animal that is not much bigger than a mouse yet looks like a deer. Most bizarre! I urge you to Google it, or better still look it up on You Tube.

Whether there was any truth in this story or not is another matter. But what couldn't be denied was the wonderful character of the city. A fact that did not go unnoticed by UNESCO when they listed it as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Mind you I've seen many places that have been listed as World Heritage Sites over the years, and I think that just like PADI diving licences they hand them out far too easily. I imagine a lot of money gets passed around behind closed door and under the table when a new site is elected.

We still had the best part of a week to kill so we headed for Singapore. If I thought Malaysia was clinical and boring then Singapore took it to a whole new level. This was a country that banned chewing gum for god's sake. Make your own assumptions on that one. It seemed to me that there was very little to do apart from wander the city, shop and eat. And since we were on a backpacker's budget shopping didn't really appeal to me and two minute noodles featured very heavily in my diet. The main tourist attraction seemed to be the zoo. But since I consider zoos to be prisons for animals this didn't appeal to me either.

Ian and I did however make it out to the world famous Raffles hotel with full intentions of ordering a Singapore Sling. One look at the price list soon changed our minds. It was either sit and sip a drink that I probably wouldn't even like, or use the same money on three night's accommodation. My backpacker's mind was taking over. We took a few photos and went back to our basic room.

Little India was cool though. I mean, who wouldn't like an area totally dedicated to cheap Indian food? Not me that's for sure. Although I wasn't sure how to react when my food arrived on a banana leaf and I was expected to eat it with my right hand. Call me a cultural philistine but I'd prefer a plate and a knife and fork any day of the week. Still, it tasted good, despite the fact that the fingers on my right hand were stained for the next few days. We had intentions of popping over the Singapore River to try fill our faces in China Town too but we couldn't drag ourselves away from Little India.

Christmas was approaching fast and we were desperate to settle back into our hostel in Melaka to prepare for the festivities. A four hour bus ride later and we were back there.

Somehow Melaka felt more Chistmassy to me than Sydney had the previous year. Maybe the old European architecture aided this feeling. The fact that we had a good bunch of people together to share it with also added to the excitement. Although this was not without a tinge of sadness, in the knowledge that we would all be going our separate ways when the festivities were over. We all agreed that we had to make this a Christmas to remember.

That evening we got some beers in, and set about decorating the hostel Christmas tree on a backpackers budget of zero dollars. This proved to be more fun than if we'd had hundreds of dollars. It's amazing what you can make out of two minute noodle packets and beer bottle labels.

And then, just like that it was Christmas 1993, my second away from home. On the one hand, it felt kind of sad that I wasn't opening my presents up at home with my mum, dad and sister, but on the other I couldn't have wished for a better alternative.

As midnight fast approached Ian and I got wind that the others had bought us presents. Thankfully, we'd drunk enough beer to subdue the embarrassment a little. "Let's sneak off quickly and see what we can find," I whispered to Ian. He agreed, and for the next 30 minutes or so we ran around the streets of Melaka to see what we could come up with for the equivalent of $5. This turned out to be a lot of fun. By the time we reached our financial constraints we'd filled two old sacks with things that we'd bought, found or been given.

Our absence had not gone without suspicion. Our stealth mission had been far less stealthy than we imagined it to be. "Been out getting presents for us have you lads," Andy shouted. We conceded defeat.

As the clock struck midnight we sat in a circle under the tree and gave out our gifts. This went on for the best part of an hour as the others unwrapped such random items as coconuts, bricks, pine cones and for the grand finale Brit received a huge cucumber with two oranges taped to one end. The photo of her opening it captured this image for ever.

Ian and I said our goodbyes to the group before we headed to bed because we'd booked a bus to the Thai border for early the next day. Our group had been together for the best part of three months and we'd shared some wonderful experiences, but as we're so often reminded, all good things must come to an end.

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