Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Straits of Malacca

Crossing the Straits of Malacca from Indonesia to Malaysia changed my environment drastically. While I was on the 'fast-ferry', a vessel that lurched awkwardly between the air/water interface as though it was trying to rid itself of its passengers (if not their lunch), I met a guy from Malvern and instantly put him into my debt by drugging him up against an impending motion-induced hurl. Our duo was soon augmented by the introduction of an English girl, with whom I ran my usual joke about how Australians believe they're so English they still think they have to go to Europe for their holidays, despite Australia being nearly three orders of magnitude further away from it than Britain is.

The ferry ride itself was amazing enough to make up for it being twice the cost of the equivalent plane trip - we saw a plethora of flying fish, dolphins, the wary sharing of the waters between massive container ships and tiny fishing boats, a terrific sunset and eventually the specter of approaching land.

During my final weeks in Indonesia I'd been carefully avoiding learning too much of the language, knowing that I'd need to make room for the next language I'd be encountering. My skills in this department had been progressing fairly well despite the fact that I found that communicating complex ideas could actually be achieved through the judicious employment of exaggerated facial expressions and carefully choreographed mime displays. I'd mastered the numeric system, times and dates, transport and distances, food, money and "Go away" - all the important stuff. I'd even learned a few verbs but was too afraid to use them in a sentence. I think my greatest achievement was having a political discussion in Indonesian: "SBY good?", "Yes, good", "Megawati good?", "No, Megawati bad".

But when I'd landed in Malaysia I discovered to my horror that that the Malaysian language is practically identical to Indonesian! I'd been forgetting all that language for nothing. However, this frustration proved premature as it turns out Malaysians only ever really speak Chinese or English, so I haven't actually had a chance to use it here.

You know, I've never understood the name 'Indonesia' - 'Islands of the Hindus'. Indonesia is full of Muslims, Hindus live in India, which means 'Land of the Indus River', which is actually in Pakistan (a nation named for an acronym of states, not all of which it actually controls). At least 'Malaysia', or 'Bad Asia', is straight-forward about itself.

The major change I noticed traveling between these two countries, apart from an increase in Starbucks encounters and my newfound ability to attract no attention to myself, is the national mood. Indonesians are more depressed than Malaysians. In Indonesia, the Asian Tiger crash of '97, terrorism and separatism, the tsunami and other natural disasters, the advent of cheap airfares erasing the tourism industry of most medium-sized towns and then another economic collapse in the form of the GFC seems to have imbued the population with a resignation of their future that ambushes one like a street party in a sleeping gas attack... or the Grand Final played by koalas. People spend so much of their time lying around! Most businesses are so used to not getting any customers that all the staff spend the day watching TV and eying passes-by with suspicious glances. Things always happen 'tomorrow' but are 'not worth it' and I was always asked what I was doing there in the first place. Saying that, the people do put on a brave face and are extremely friendly, smiling and laughing a lot of the time but hiding a general feeling that there is nothing to hope for. Heartbreaking.

Malaysia seems to be the exact opposite. In every person I meet I get the sense that they are on the cusp of great things, live in exciting times and have big plans and ambitions that will change themselves and the world for the better. This positivity is a breath of fresh air.

The island of Penang was my first encounter with Malaysia. Taking a break from constant travel I spent four days hanging out with my Melbourne buddy, enjoying my first beer in almost a month (a Royal Stout, naturally), going to the beach, picking up a free two-month Thai visa (they're on special right now) and seeing the movie 'Zombieland'. I also discovered that my premature ejaculation from Sumatra (there are probably better ways to express that) resulted in some embarrassing reading material. 'Sopie's World' and 'Anne of Green Gables' are good books to read locked in a hotel room 500kms from one's nearest co-Westerner, but reading them in a dormitory full of curious and literate judges of personality is another matter - especially when the covers are bright pink with girly handwritten titles. I quickly moved on to the more masculine 'War and Peace' which brings impressed glances and sympathetic nods (undeserved of course - all 560,000 words are engrossing). My gradual progress through this paper brick is followed by everyone around me.

Penang is like two cities inhabiting the same area. One is the gleaming skyscraper city of the present and the other the decaying British colonial remnants of the past. This latter city is largely left to rot out its existence independently of its successor. Huge mansions hosting collapsed roofs and trees tearing its walls apart, whole rows of terrace houses with vines twisting window frames loose and clinging onto bricks before they can fall to the street below. It's a reminder that the wilderness is always out there, waiting for us to look away for just a second before it regains its mastery over our environment. In a war with nature we can never win, only destroy ourselves.

I took the bus over the bridge to the Cameron Highlands on the peninsula. Here I loudly declared to my dorm room that this was the first night I'd ever spent on the Eurasian Super-continent, forgetting for a moment that I've actually traveled for three months in India which is connected to Eurasia via the not inconsiderable land bridge called the Himalayas. I tried to amend the definition to mean the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, but that includes annoying islands I have also visited like the UK, Singapore, Japan, Penang and, well, Indonesia. Anyway, I could at least declare that I was now just a stroll away from Nicholas Sarkozy, something one misses when inhabiting Australia.

I think all the energy reserves and sleep deprivation quotas I'd been expending in the last... four years?... finally hit zero and demanded a recharge here. Major attractions in the Cameron Highlands include beautiful tea plantations, towering rain-forest canopies, the preserved culture of the local tribes and the world's largest flower. I skipped all of these in preference for hanging out in the dorm's common-room which overlooked the rain-soaked valley, reveling in the company of English-speakers, playing scrabble, reading War and Peace, consuming a 1.7 litre tub of icecream and watching dozens of hours of Hollywood DVDs. I spent a whole week here - five days longer than planned. I did go on a couple of short walks around the local hills and ate at some Indian restaurants a few times - I think that counts as environmental and cultural tourism.

After a while I followed a bunch of travelers on a bus to Kuala Lumpur for another week of extreme chilling out - this time in the local environment of malls.


  1. Yay 'War & Peace'. (I have purchased my 'Moby Dick' and will be going on with that once I finish the Thomas Mann I'm reading but yeah - go Tolstoy.)

  2. Wonderful Felix. Newsy! what a pity you wasted time forgetting that language. never mind.
    cameron highlands here i come.