By the time we got to the south border of Thailand, and our tent had been eaten by vicious tropical ants (see Episode XXI), we were feeling ill-inclined to continue our free-style wild camping lifestyle. It was hot, hot, hot – an El Nino year – so riding through the sweltering day then sleeping in a sweaty, ant-savaged tent was becoming less and less appealing.
Furthermore, we were still proofreading a massive three-volume text on South African decapods, and our application to study at the Institute of Indonesian Arts (ISI) in Solo had barely begun. We needed to hole up for a bit longer.
So, we hopped on a boat from Samsun, on the south border of Thailand, to our first stop in Malaysia: Langkawi. Our convivial Airbnb hosts were Sammy and Liz, who had a sprawling house in a picturesque village a mile or so inland.
As well as a small pool and a grumpy cat, they kept a well-equipped outdoor kitchen and poolside hangout for guests, perfect for parties, barbecues and, of course, with us around, the odd curry night. As a duty free island, imported food and booze was dirt cheap and the local Chinese supermarket had a climate-controlled wine room with contents to rival our beloved York Beer and Cheese Shop (minus the cheese). Fine wines and single malts aside, I nearly OD’d on my one true and unbeatable addiction – pickled gherkins.
Culturally speaking, Langkawi’s offerings were a tad limited. We did find one museum, consisting of cheesy historical tableaux, arid displays of shadow puppets, and a ‘live gamelan’ – yes we were now in the land of gamelan! – which consisted of three or four bored-looking museum staff who’d start bashing out some dire arrangement of a pop song as soon as anyone walked into the room, and immediately put their beaters down and go back to poking their smartphones as the guests approached the far door.
There was also the Sky Bridge, stretching vertiginously between two peaks and a big favourite with honeymooning Indian couples and Chinese tour groups. Of course, to get there you had to traverse an annoying little theme park, including a compulsory show at the 6D cinema (in which the dimensions involved seemed to be length, breadth, depth, time (wasting), pointlessness and scientific illiteracy). But the views from the bridge were cool.
We encountered the first of many Malaysian night markets, a gourmet’s dream of local culinary delights (the green fruit are durian – as stinky as they are spiky):
Well away from the tourist ruckus of the coast, Sammy and Liz’s village made a welcome escape. Surprisingly similar to Laotian villages, though more solidly built, there were many traditional wooden stilt houses, spread out a comfortable distance from each other with little in the way of fences or walls, and plenty of space for village scallies to tromp around making gentle mischief.
The wildlife was incredible – even in the village. There was the giant monitor lizard (perhaps 2 meters from snout to tail) that lived by the river at the bottom of the garden – more often heard than seen, crashing around in the bamboo. Dozens of different birds came by daily, including bright green parrots, a pair of loquacious myna birds who would hop through every morning chatting to each other and imitating the sounds of cars, washing machines and anything else that took their fancy, and my personal favourite, the ‘reality birds’, as I called them: unassuming and rather shy brown birds who’s distinctive whistle served as a daily reminder that life is truly “for real, for real.” Their daily exhortations to pay attention the present moment became a psychological lifeline for me as frustrations about our Indonesian visa process began to build.
We’d been in Langkawi a month, and our process for applying for student visas had ground to a halt. The Immigration department had just switched to a so-called “online” system which a) no one knew how to use yet, b) only allowed a limited number of applications per day, counting from midnight, c) seemed to involve a lot of offline posting of signed and stamped letters in triplicate etc. etc., and d) required an actual human being still needed to physically go to an office in Jakarta to pay the fee in cash. At this point (1 month in), the delay was with a letter from the Education Ministry being “lost in the post” – (i.e., probably never sent in the first place because the minister had dropped the application form down the back of the sofa or something) – the first of many disheartening delays that would drag our stay out for another three months to come.
Wanting to edge a bit closer to Indonesia, and ready for a change of scene, we caught another boat to George Town on Penang island, a cosmopolitan, multicultural city with big Chinese and South Indian populations, and famed around the world for its incredible food. I was delighted to discover branches of Chennai’s best-loved South Indian veggie restaurants, like the Ananda Bhavan and Woodlands, and wasted no time in ordering a thali (mixed South Indian curries with rice, papadams and exquisite chutneys served on a banana leaf).
We found a new Airbnb bolthole in a Chinese suburb of George Town, owned by a nice lad called Mike. A pleasant, clean, comfy, air-conditioned flat (we tried to resist the AC, but at the peak of an El Nino year the humidity and heat were incredible – a 5 minute walk to the shop would leave you literally dripping with sweat and struggling to breathe).
Our student visa applications were going nowhere fast. Days lengthened into weeks lengthened into months. No one seemed to know how the new system worked. Frustrated, and unable to take on any major proofreading projects, I spent a lot of time roaming George Town, soaking up the colonial architecture, gorgeous Chinese temples and professional graffiti.
Malaysia, as it turns out, is one of the best places to see traditional Chinese religious architecture, since most temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution within China itself, and the replacements done on the cheap in concrete and gaudy modern paints. A particular highlight was the superb Pinang Peranakan Mansion – a lovingly restored Chinese clan house, filled with antiques from the period (provided by its owner, an avid collector).
In complete contrast, apart from its splendid bronze cannon, Fort Cornwallis’ sorry exhibits of bits of crap (nails, barbed wire, broken bricks, etc.) found on site, forlornly displayed in mouldering arches under the walls, give it the dubious honour of being the single worst museum either of us had ever visited, anywhere:
And utterly unforgettable was Kang Lok Si Temple, up on Penang Hill: the very definition of kitsch, as expressed through the medium of Chinese Buddhism.
Enter, leave and pass through the many, many gift shops…
Thirsty for a little nature, we went for a hike around the north of the island to the isolated Monkey Beach. Having passed the small beginnings of a forest fire on our way, we returned to find it blazing. With no sign of any official firefighters showing up (we’d called the fire service several hours previously) we rallied some workers from a nearby science research station and all got to play at being firemen:
Despite these distractions, and the comfortable conviviality of Mike’s flat (where I got a lesson in real carbonara making from a real Sicilian – apparently you should use onion OR garlic but not both, and 2 yolks to one white), the wait for visas was becoming tortuous: each week starting in hope and ending in disappointment and anxiety.
Anxiety seemed to be in the air. Despite Malaysia’s long-standing reputation as one of the more stable and democratic countries in the region, the rising tide of authoritarianism was being felt here too. One of our Malaysian friends was, when we met him, a prolific satire writer. As we arrived in the country, the 1MDB scandal was just breaking: Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, had been pretty much caught red-handed syphoning off a billion dollars from the country’s sovereign wealth fund – some of which, possibly in an act of deliberate irony, went on to fund the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. (For those interested, this scandal is now in the papers again: having been ousted at the polls, Najib is finally facing prosecution for his many alleged crimes.)
Our friend told us hair-raising tales of lawyers trying to serve papers on Najib and being arrested under the Security Offences Act; a key witness turning up head-down in an oil drum full of concrete; the murder of the finance minister’s pregnant Mongolian ex-lover who had been threatening to give evidence to the FBI, etc. In this tense situation, our friend kept his satire style to pseudo-hagiographic admiration of Najib, for example, praising his honesty for returning millions of dollars ‘accidentally’ lent to him by the Saudis (some kind of money laundering scheme, from what I could make out).
Careful though our friend was, the atmosphere was rapidly souring. Within 2 weeks of our arrival, every magazine and website he published in was either closed down by the government, went bust after their advertisers were warned off, or informed him that sadly they could no longer risk publishing his articles. By the end of the month, no one in Malaysia was printing satire – on paper or online.
After the upheavals and stillborn rebellion against the Troika in Greece; the rising authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in Turkey; the tightening screws in Xi Jinping’s China (especially against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province); the military junta in Thailand; and the business-as-usual tinpot dictatorships of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, I’d rather been looking forward to a stint in Malaysia – a country with a long history of relatively healthy, unfettered democracy. But the wave of insanity engulfing the democratic world, characterised by strong-man would-be dictators, divisive identity politics, populism and racio-nationalism was hard on our tails.
(And this was still a year before Brexit and Trump! Oh for those halcyon days when these still seemed like they were mainly other peoples’ problems…)
Anyway, after nearly four months of confusion and mistakes and waiting and waiting, it turned out the visas had been ready for several weeks but no one had told us. So finally we were all set to continue the very last leg of our journey to Indonesia.
We followed the coast road down to Johor Baru – mainly through vast palm plantations. There were still some nice spots, especially where we managed to get away from the plantation roads. And lots of friendly warung (cafes) each with their own associated dogs or cats – not so much pets as animal neighbours with overlapping territories and self-assigned begging rights – such as this crazy-eyed individual.
Malacca was fun, in a similar way to George Town, with good food and nice architecture, not to mention Doraemon rickshaws…
…but frankly, like this blog post, too long had been spent in Malaysia and it was time to get to Solo and make some music!