Malaysia, which I had always regarded as a country of transit, rather
than destination has turned out to be South East Asia's surprise star.
With Grant and Charity (his girlfriend) in tow, we left southern Thailand
with its pretty, dippy beaches and waster population and headed down
to Georgetown, Malaysia's old British City on the Island of Penang.
You really notice the difference the second you go over the border.
Unlike Thailand Malaysia is a purposeful, bustling country where most
people work in areas other than tourism it is also by far the richest
nation, Sinapore expected, in the region.
Moreover, the Malaysians are a friendly lot and, by and large speak
excellent English. Even if they didn't, Malay (and Indonesian which
is almost identical) is one of the easiest languages in the world
to learn: it uses a Latin script and has so little grammar that effectively
it's just a case of picking up words and stringing them together.
The upshot of all this (wealth, language and past British influence)
is that talking to say, a Malaysian restaurant owner is much like
talking to a UK restaurant owner. There's no feeling that you're a
ludicrously wealthy westerner and that they're out to fleece you for
all they can; the wealth gap is bridgeable and Malaysians are genuinely
interested and interestung.
Penang is also a charming little city with some great restaurants.
So we pitched up to 'The Dragon King,' which served the local Malay-Chinese
nonya cuisine. 'Nonya', the restaurant's owner, told us means 'woman.'
Earlier this century, she explained, women were pretty much confined
to the home and had little to do except invent new cooking styles.
And the fruits of this domestic inequity are some fine and distinctive
dishes: crispy vegetable parcels, chicken Capitan (a cocnunt curry),
unusual - and ungreasy- spring rolls and one of the best chilli sauces
I've ever tasted. What with our meal and lesson in Malaysian history,
I could find little to fault the 'Dragon King'. Except, I suppose,
the décor. In common with most restaurants in these parts, it was
tiled throughout and had all the ambience of a public lavatory.
Penang is also graced with a number of temples. Despite it's dangerous
and exciting sounding name, the snake temple is one of the dullest
I've ever visited - more like an ornate garden shed with a couple
of apathetic looking vipers. Indeed, far more interesting than the
temple were Jane's squeaks of terror in the face of these indifferent,
bored looking serpents. But another temple, with its profusion of
gilded Buddahs and fantastic stone screens was almost enough to get
me interested in culture; it was also considerably cheaper and easier
to get to than the snake shack. Penang amused in other ways too: it
has a chunky hill in the middle - the island's high point - which
is good fun in the middle of a thunderstorm; it has films on DVD for
around $1 before they arrive in UK cinemas. And it has an impressive
number of transsexual prostitutes: apparently these score over their
more conventional sisters in that along with the normal services,
they can also chat about football for hours then beat you at pool.
In fact, the only real problem with Penang is the weather: it's either
scorchingly hot and humid, building up to a tropical thunderstorm
or engaged in a tropical thunderstorm. Though, typically, after the
thunderstorm, you do get half an hour of pleasant weather. Then there's
religion. Islam is on the up in these parts (in some areas those fun-lovin'
clerics want to ban bikinis and hand-holding) and while Penang itself
is relatively liberal, if your hotel is within a kilometre of a mosque,
you'll be woken up by the Bilal calling the faithful to prayer. I've
no problem with religion - even one that seems as much of a laugh
as Islam - but I have to say, I become sorely troubled when any faith
impinges on my right to right to be asleep at 5:30 in the morning.
From Penang, we took a fast ferry across the Malacca strait to Indonesia's
westernmost island, Sumatra. There were few tourists on board, though
we did have the chance to admire the outfit one chap had knocked up
for himself: foreign correspondent's vest, with tie-dye and embroidery;
enormous and faintly ridiculous tattoos; half a market's ethnic rubbish
hanging round his neck; and all topped off by a Yasser Arafat headscarf.
His girlfriend had a mass of peroxide white dreadlocks and was togged
from head to foot in army surplus. I wondered if they shouldn't be
up a tree somewhere protesting about a bypass.
Once off the ferry we were more or less press-ganged into a 'tourist'
bus. I had no real problem with this: true it was four times the price
of a regular bus, but the Rupiah is arguably the world's most rubbish
currency (14,000 to the pound) and, in Indonesia, even a rip-off is
often a bargain. But then our promised 'luxury vehicle' arrived. It
looked as if it had once been two minibuses and had insufficient seats.
So after a group discussion Grant and I were nominated to negotiate
a better price. We were doing just fine, when a girl we dubbed angry
woman 'burst' on the scene. She started yelling at the man we were
(successfully) negotiating with, f-ing and blinding. I quietly asked
her to shut up, pointing out that to lose your temper in these parts
makes you look like an idiot and she slunk off.
On the bus journey to the Orangutan sanctuary at Bukitlawang, we got
to know our fellow passengers a little. There was Diego, an Argentinean
and Helen, his English girlfriend, a pair of wryly laconic (aren't
they all?) Irish guys, the four of us (due to crowding Grant elected
to ride on the roof) and, of course Angry woman and her boyfriend.
The travellers you meet in Indonesia tend to be more interesting and
adventurous than those you meet on the mainland and this proved to
be the case. All, that is, except anngry woman who was arse-achingly
dull yet somehow convinced that her trite self-regarding platitudes
were what we were clamouring to hear. For the rest of the journey
we listened to her spew anecdote after anecdote, each one unsubtly
designed to reflect well on her. Fortunately when we arrived in Bukitlawang
she flounced off after announcing she had 'somewhere far better to
stay, a personal recommendation.' As for our hotel, the fact that
she wasn't staying there was recommendation enough.
The following day we headed up to the rehabilitation centre, where
Orangutans which have been kept as pets are taught to be wild again.
I wondered what kind of person kept one of these big ginger apes as
a pet - a pimp or a drug dealer, perhaps? As they can cheerfully rip
your arms out of their sockets, they're hardly something you want
to cuddle. Anyway, in their semi wild state the orangutans are undeniably
impressive and, in spite of their goofy appearance, graceful. One
swung easily through the trees with a baby in tow; another (the bloke,
natch) slouched on his butt, eating bananas with his feet; while a
third which had apparently bitten 150 tourists got tantalisingly close
to Angry woman.
Our near relatives in the animal world are pretty comical, so as we
watched them, we were joking and mucking around; they were used to
people and nobody says orang watching has to be a deadly serious,
po-fcaed business. Nobody, of course, except angry woman. The whole
way back to centre I could hear her grumbling to her compliant, muppet-like
boyfriend that watching us interact was like watching a bunch of f-ing
monkeys. Once there, I noted, she demonstrated her heartfelt commitment
to the orangutan cause by slipping a 500 Rupiah (about 3p) note into
the donation box.
Bukitlawang is a pleasant little place of around 700 people. It's
built along a clear mountain river which is great for swimming and,
although Sumatra's largest tourist attraction, it is agreeably low-key.
The other upside is that accommodation here - and elsewhere in Indonesia
- is often under three quid a night. Along with Brits, the other big
group of tourists were the Dutch. This can be a little confusing as,
initially they often look a little Germanic. You soon realise they're
Dutch when you see them paying their bills without bitching and treating
the staff with courtesy and respect.
Having cut our teeth on orangutans, we (the group from the minibus)
decided to go trekking in the local chunk of Sumatra's remaining rainforest,
a 9000 square km national park. Here is a list of the animals you
hope to see in the rainforest: rhinos, tigers, monkeys, elephants.
And here is a list of animals you will see in the jungle: mosquitoes,
biting flies, wasps, snakes, leeches. Our trek started well enough,
a pleasant walk in the woods, but we soon realised why this particular
strand of jungle had survived unlogged. The local topography zigzagged
up and down like a saw blade; it was the kind of area, where on a
map, there are about fifteen contour lines to the inch. And we definitely
needed a guide - the trail was something only he could see.
By the end of the first day we were shattered, soaked and stank of
sweat. Jane said she'd seen a documentary where Euan McGregor had
spent a few weeks in the forest and he'd come across as a real whiner;
now she admired his fortitude. That night we camped under a piece
of black plastic on a muddy little riverbank; it was damp, sweaty
and there were ten of us in the same shelter. The only saving grace,
I suppose, is that it wasn't actually raining in the rainforest. I
was also coming down with tonsillitis; I thought this desperately
unfair. Here I was in a rainforest, full of thrilling and debilitating
tropical diseases and I get (for the second time this trip) this crappy
As we sat around a fire, conversation turned, naturally enough, to
poo. There is nothing like trekking in the middle of nowhere for discussing
defecation with people you met 48 hours earlier. Helen, it transpired,
needed to go, but it was dark and spooky: so she started casting around
for a 'poo buddy.' Sadly no-one, her boyfriend included, was gallant
enough to answer this call. By the next morning, however, we'd all
answered the call of nature in the jungle. Having now experienced
frozen poo and jungle poo, I can hardly wait to see what new and exciting
kinds of al fresco defecation this trip holds out for me.
The next morning, I woke up in a sleeping bag soaked with sweat. Now
with full blown tonsillitis, nuerofened to the gills, I staggered
out of the jungle and went to bed for two days.
From Bukitlawang six of us hired a minibus to drive us along Indonesia's
impossibly bad roads to the hill town of Berestagi. There isn't an
awful lot to be said about Berestagi itself except the street food
is good and that you can tell it's a place for Indonesian tourists
rather than westerners as there are no internet cafes. However, our
hotel had a book for travelers to write helpful comments etc. in which
provided an evening's entertainment. Most of these were the usual
dippy 'save the whales/rainforests/etc. eco-drivel,' the kind of well-meaning
but ignorant single issue stuff found in college common rooms. One
however was an eight page screed that sounded like a manifesto for
animal rights terrorist and a surprising number of subsequent writers
seemed to agree with the bunny-crazed author. The entry that stood
out most though, was short, well-written and packed with useful information
for its intended audience. It began: 'If you are a bona fide sex tourist....'
We had come to Beristagi, though, to look at its volcano, Sibiyak.
Despite, being a pretty full-on tourist attraction, this did not disappoint.
The landscape of the Sumatran highlands is an odd one at Beristagi:
you expect mountains aplenty, but what you really get is a high, flat
plain, studded with the occasional volcano, a very Jurassic vista.
Sibiya itself is a jungly little peak with a nice crater with a floor
which resembles a beach, just what a volcano should be. Best of all,
though, are its fumaroles. These are sulphur encrusted vents which
have gases shooting out of them, making much the same whoosing sound
as the 'Thunderbirds' rocket. And, at the bottom there were hot sulphur
springs to slouch in; while pleasant these leave you smelling a little
eggs for the next three days.
Broken Axles and hanuted forests.
After Berestagi, our next port of call was Daua Toba, the world's
largest crater lake, but first we had to get there, via Sumatra's
world class infrastructure. So Grant, myself, Jane Charity, the Irish
guys and a French couple from central casting (he -slicked back hair,
impossibly twiddly moustache, she - pigtails, Breton shirt) chartered
another minibus. The journey began well enough - a half hour wait
in a petrol station. Petrol stations are rather exciting places in
Sumatra as everyone smokes. Ah, the carefree Indonesians, fag smoulering
in hand as they fill up your car. Indeed, smoking, especially clove
cigarettes, is the national pastime in Indonesia and if anyone developed
a cigarette that could be smoked in your sleep, they'd undoubtedly
find a ready market here.
Our journey was to become an epic, though. Soon we were on one of
the worst roads I've seen outside a war zone. Parts of it were deceptively
OK, then abruptly road-spanning potholes would appear before the surface
went altogether and was replaced by a mass of shattered rock. I think
part of it may have been the trans-Sumatran highway, which conjures
up (entirely unrealistic) images of a smooth concrete ribbon hugging
the land's contours and I was just commenting on its unbelievable
badness to Jane when there was a very final sounding crack. We had
broken the front axle. Luckily, Ben, one of the Irish guys was an
engineer and could explain in some detail how we'd broken the axle,
even if he couldn't fix it. So, for 30 seconds excitement, we sat
and waited for three and a half hours on a lonely Sumatran road, while
it got dark. We looked at the stars and read and talked and did all
those things people did before playstations and DVD players. I must
say I rather enjoyed it, though I wouldn't like to do it all the time.
Eventually a second minibus arrived, which, once stopped, had to be
bump started by the men of the bus. In contrast to our first driver,
a taciturn fellow, number two was a voluable chap. And as I was sitting
next to him we talked amiably about the corruption in Indonesian politics
and his love of death metal music (curiously he was also a Queen fan
and got quite choked up when he spoke of Freddie Mercury's death).
Then we moved on to religion. Northern Sumatra is Moslem (moderate
and fanatical) with a surprisingly large Christian minority, the result
of zealous German and Dutch missionaries last century. But all this
is intertwined with older, more primal beliefs and conversation turned
to ghosts. The driver said he'd once seen a ghost, skipping across
the road with the head of a man and the body of a money. I replied
that I'd seen something very odd myself, but that it had been dark
so it could have been my imagination - did he think he could have
imagined his ghost? No, he said forcefully: he believed in spooks.
I didn't want to offend him so I steered the conversation carefully
back to famous British hauntings and, eventually we lapsed into silence.
Later, near our destination, in a deep, spooky forest, he got back
onto the supernatural again, this time telling me about an angry spirit
whose corporeal head had been buried in the north and whose body had
been interred some 2000km away in the south, making it impossible
for him to find peace. I noticed he was dropping cigarettes out of
the window: given the local love of smoking, this must be serious...when
I asked he said he was making offerings to the spirits of the forest.
Bear in mind, this is a guy in a shell suit who wouldn't look out
of place in Reading, who loves his mobile phone and who is an ardent
Trying to lighten the mood a little, I commented that I wouldn't like
to be in the woods at night, though I was thinking more of pythons
than angry wraiths. He dropped another couple of cigarettes then went
very quiet, mumbling that this stretch of the forest was particularly
bad. I looked over at him: the poor fellow was shaking all over, sweating
and was absolutely terrified. He muttered something else but his voice
was so unsteady I didn't catch it; he was clearly so frightened even
I was beginning to get a little spooked. And then a few minutes later,
still in the forest he was his usual cheery self again. Apparently
clear of the haunted area, we spent the rest of the journey discussing
Indonesian food, politics and Queen's greatest hits.